Crisis PR: Lessons From Zara Ad Campaign That Critics Said Resembled Gaza Destruction

No business wants to face a massive PR crisis, but that time often comes for many organizations. The importance of planning for crisis communications was exhibited perfectly in December of 2023 by the fashion brand Zara, which found itself in the spotlight for negative reasons due to the outcry over imagery that some have seen as incendiary.

Here’s a look at what businesses can learn from Zara's high-profile mistakes.

What Happened: Zara’s Communications Crisis

The campaign that caused controversy was called “The Jacket,” which contains imagery that many have said shares similarities with the casualties of the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict in the Middle East. The photos of a model surrounded by mannequins missing limbs or covered by shrouds have drawn comparisons to images of corpses, causing many to describe the campaign as “insensitive” and “tone-deaf.”

Critics of Zara have accused the fashion brand of lying, claiming that the campaign's messaging might be purposeful—rather than an accident, as the company had purported. These consumers believe that Zara’s response lacked tact and that their claims of “regretting the misunderstanding” and having “deep respect towards everyone” felt entirely insufficient, and failed to address the public’s concerns.

Part of the reason why Zara has gotten so much flak from consumers is that the brand has a history of controversy when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2021, one of Zara’s head designers came under fire for making anti-Palestinian comments. However, rather than fire the designer, the company simply condemned her statements. Because of this, some consumers have begun questioning the authenticity of Zara’s claims that this incident was an unfortunate coincidence.

Crisis PR Lessons From Zara’s Mistakes

Regardless of the campaign’s intentions, this situation is a testament to the power of crisis PR. A well-planned crisis response can allow a company to weather controversy and come out stronger on the other side, but a poorly planned one—or a lack of planning at all—can cause massive damage to the organization’s reputation. While Zara’s plan had a few strengths, it also had many missteps that other businesses can learn from.

The Importance of Timing

One of the critical lessons to be learned from Zara’s communication crisis is the importance of timing. If it were not released around the time of the escalation of the conflict in the Middle East, Zara’s campaign likely would not have caused such a stir. Although it was always designed to be provocative, the campaign would have come and gone were it not for the unfortunate similarities of the imagery to casualties in Gaza. Zara would have been wise to shelve this campaign until later when it could have inspired far less derision.

Taking Accountability

The crisis response Zara issued also lacked several fundamental qualities. For one, Zara did not take accountability for its actions. Instead, the company attempted to defer blame by shifting attention toward the fact that the campaign was conceived and shot before the Israel-Palestine conflict escalated. Although Zara did make the right move by acting quickly and removing the campaign, the response did not have the necessary authenticity to be accepted by the public.

Learning From Previous Crises

Zara’s final big mistake was not learning from past mistakes. The company should have seen the controversy the designer’s anti-Palestinian comments caused and taken extra care to be sensitive about this topic. Consumers are quick to forgive and forget a mistake, but repeated mistakes show that the brand is untrustworthy. As they say, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Making the same mistake that caused a previous crisis is one of the worst things any business can do.

Zara’s handling of its PR crisis from this controversial campaign offers many lessons about crisis management for communications brands and companies. The key takeaways from this situation are to respond quickly, take accountability, and—most importantly—not repeat a mistake you have already made. With these steps, businesses can overcome even some of the most challenging crises they may face.

Thomas Mustac is a medical and health industry PR specialist at Otter PR.