Toronto agency apologizes for promo using George Floyd, Breonna Taylor

Toronto agency The Garden has apologized for promotional materials it created for a party game that contained short video clips of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as well as a hashtag featuring a pun referencing the Black Lives Matter movement.

According to the agency, the “satirical adult party game”—called 2020: The Game—was intended as a piece of light-hearted self-promotion inspired by a difficult year. Its premise was that players are time travellers from the year 3000 who go back to 2020 (“the year when everything started going downhill”).

“Ironically, we seem to have made this year worse,” said the apology, which was posted to The Garden’s LinkedIn page on Thursday. “Instead of a cathartic moment, we’ve unintentionally added fuel to the fire.”

The promotional materials for the game drew sharp criticism from members of the industry, who called them “incredibly insensitive,” “tone deaf” and an example of how an industry dominated by white executives and leaders continues to have a blind spot when it comes to important and sensitive issues relating to race and colour.

The promotional video was posted on a since-deleted Instagram account called @play2020thegame on Wednesday evening, as well as on LinkedIn. It featured a short montage of actual news clips demonstrating how terrible 2020 has been, with references to the Australian wildfires, the death of Kobe Bryant, and the emergence of the coronavirus.

The video also included snippets of news stories relating to Floyd and Taylor, whose deaths at the hands of U.S. police were the flashpoint for ongoing protests and discussions around systemic racism.

The Instagram account also featured examples of game cards, including one that referenced the fly that landed on the head of U.S. vice-president Mike Pence during the Oct. 7 Vice-Presidential Debate. The card bore the message “Black fly hijacks vice-presidential debate, Republicans deploy SWAT team.” The Instagram post also included the hashtag #blackfliesmatter.

Joshua Richards, one of the members of the new industry group People of Colour in Canadian Advertising and Marketing (POCAM), was among the first people to call out The Garden, commenting on both the Instagram and LinkedIn posts.

“None of this is funny,” said Richards in an email statement to The Message. “People are out of work and dying during this pandemic. Police are still murdering Black people.” George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, he added, should not be used as “memes” to promote a game. (Richards posted a full statement to LinkedIn on Friday evening. Read it here).

The agency subsequently removed the Instagram account entirely and took down the LinkedIn post. On Thursday afternoon, it issued the apology, signed by agency co-founders Shari Walczak and Shane Ogilvie, acknowledging the “insensitivity and the hurt it has caused” (read the full post below). They admitted to being “misguided” in their approach, adding “we realize that there is no lightness in the struggle and tragedies of marginalized communities.”

However, some people angered by the original post were also upset that The Garden took down both the offending Instagram and LinkedIn posts, including the comments expressing dismay and frustration with the content. “I understand wanting to take it all down,” said Richards. “You made a mistake, and hurt a lot of people. But these conversations are necessary. And they need to be conversations.”

In an interview Thursday evening, Walczak said that the decision to take down the offending posts wasn’t an attempt to remove criticism, but to stop any further spread of hurtful content. “When you’re faced with a situation like this, I think first and foremost [the thought is] what is the first action you have to take, and for us it was ‘We need to stop the hurt that this is causing,'” she said.

Her original intention, she said, was to remove just the video from the post and add a comment explaining why, but she discovered that wasn’t possible. “I definitely would want that video out of circulation, but if I could go back and change [things], I honestly did not want those conversations to disappear. That was not the intent,” she said.

Asked about the contents of the video itself, Walczak said it raised no red flags within the agency prior to its publication, “It potentially speaks to a blind spot,” she said. “I’m a white female in this industry and I bring my own context and experiences, and so my blind spot is when I watched it through my lens, I didn’t see that,” she said.

The intent of the game was to point out, in a lighthearted manner, how people wish the year could have been different, something she admits wasn’t properly conveyed in the video. “This is where I offer a deeply felt apology in terms of the actual video itself,” she said. “Without anybody having the game in hand, I see now, how would we expect that they would know what the game was?”

“This is a learning opportunity,” said Richards. “For the creators, to think about how you move in this world. For the people whose first reaction is to defend instead of listen, and for the agencies who have opportunities to move the needle on issues that are decades old. And for BIPOC that we can push back and be heard and make change.”

Walczak said The Garden continues to hold discussions with members of the BIPOC community, and understands the anger and disappointment some are feeling. “The first thing I’ve said to everybody who has reached out to me is I am sorry, The Garden apologizes, and we are seeing from these conversations the insensitivity and the hurt that it caused, and it doesn’t matter what we intended,” she said.

Gavin Barrett, another POCAM member and founder/chief creative officer of the multicultural marketing agency Barrett and Welsh, called the video “deeply hurtful,” but added that he hoped it might lead to further discussion around an issue that continues to plague the industry.

“I welcome the chance to have an open conversation about how we can use this moment to learn to care for each other and respect each other better,” he wrote.

Barrett also urged The Garden to sign the Call for Equity issued earlier this year, which asking members of the country’s marketing community to take measurable against the injustice and inequity faced by the BIPOC community on a daily basis. It has amassed 580 signatories from 86 companies so far. (Update: Four members of The Garden’s senior leadership team, including Walczak and Ogilvie, signed the Call for Equity on Friday evening).

Chris Powell