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Six Possible Explanations for the Sainsbury's Slavery Cock-Up

Why the hell would anyone do that? We investigated.

by Robert Foster
20 May 2014, 1:50pm

Photo of the offending display by Shyam Bhatt

Yesterday, to spruce up a display stand of 12 Years a Slave DVDs, someone at an Oxford branch of Sainsbury’s dressed a mannequin in torn clothes similar to those worn in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor, i.e. the guy who played the slave. As is now the accepted practice, a horrified customer tweeted a picture of the display, Twitter got livid and Sainsbury's immediately had it removed before issuing a full and frank apology.

That's all well and good, and perhaps it's sensible for things like this to be resolved and then dismissed as the act of one rogue moron. It's embarrassing for everyone when stuff like this is given the suffix “-gate” by the tabloids and dragged out over a period of weeks. We can be reasonably sure that Sainsbury's isn't run by people who want to bring back the slave trade and this was a case of an idiot slipping through the net, so let's just drop it, eh?

That said, doesn't part of you want to know exactly what kind of idiot took this terrible idea as far as getting a mannequin out of the storeroom, dressing it in ripped Sainsbury's own-brand clothes, putting a twig in its pocket and hauling into place for the public to see, without a single thought as to the consequences?

Exactly, so let's take a look at some possible suspects.

The Bullingdon Club
This was in Oxford, after all. Cast your mind forward, if you will, to an excruciating Tory Party press conference in the year 2030, called after a phone video from 2014 comes to light featuring the now-Deputy Prime Minister, tux'd up and guffawing as he climbs through a Sainsbury's skylight. He's got a Cuban cigar between his teeth and “getting one over on the Twitter lefties” on his mind. Imagine said DPM shifting uneasily in his seat as he's forced to explain why he was humming Devo's "Whip It" and flicking Vs at the CCTV camera as he goes at the shirt with nanny's pinking shears. “We'd just been to an 80s disco, it's a catchy tune,” etc.

Think about it. It makes so much sense. A love of "japes". An awareness of how Twitter outrage works. Desperate for the chance to brag to a small, secretive group of other young men who are so rich they'll never even have to pretend to be sorry. Making people furious on the internet by dressing a mannequin like a slave is the new making people furious on the internet by turning up at the SU bar in blackface.

A Not Very Clever Person
This seems like the sort of oblivious but not in any way malicious thing that someone like adorable-but-not-clever Blackpool beautician Gemma Worrall might do. Remember when she thought the president's name was "Barraco Barner" and Twitter spent a week telling her she should kill herself for being stupid? She was such a good sport about it at the time, she just laughed it off and promised to learn about politics – she didn't even delete her Twitter account. What's happened to her since? Well, the other day, she was tweeting about how eating seven bananas in one go can kill you. But in a broader sense, it's unlikely she moved 200 miles south to work in a Sainsbury's.

But there are lots of nice, stupid people in the world: maybe the assistant manager was off sick and their fill-in decided to dress up the mannequin in an attempt to prove they're an imaginative pair of hands in a crisis? Maybe someone just thought it was a period romance movie – that's sort of what the DVD cover could look like if you squinted and couldn't really read very well. Maybe someone hadn't heard of slavery and assumed the movie was a work of total fiction that was set in an alternate universe, like a sort of olden-day Hunger Games? Whichever it was, don't blame the individual, blame our failed state education system.

A Genuine Racist
There's always a chance, of course, that this was an actual act of genuine race hate. You can just picture one of the angry kids you knew at school marching up and down the aisles, barking at produce, shooting his pricing gun at moisturisers as he grumbles something under his breath about men's toiletries and their "homosexual agenda".

If you are going to destroy communities by bulldozing all the family grocers' and erecting orange monoliths in their place, perhaps you have to accept that you might attract the odd local malcontent pining for an imaginary "lost" Eden.

A Cell of Dadaist Art Terrorists
Was this a statement made by someone furious that Sainsbury's and the people behind 12 Years A Slave were indirectly profiting off the blood and sweat of generations of slaves? Perhaps it was some kind of Dadaist faction of an obscure socialist organisation set on embarrassing major corporations at a minutely local level, or maybe some sixth-formers who just read No Logo had an afternoon free? Whichever one of those guys it was, they've certainly succeeded in getting their point across to the world, it's just super hard to tell what that point is and impossible to attribute it to anyone. Maybe let us know if you want to claim responsibility for this art-terrorism "attack" and we can Q+A you about it?

A Dickhead PR
You know how clothes shops are always doing stupid stuff like putting misogynist slogans and Nazi insignia on T-shirts? Maybe Sainsbury's Oxford hired one of the people who come up with those publicity-making schemes by mistake. This incident has that complete lack of rudimentary historical knowledge written all over it, and every large organisation likes to have at least one mindless media-studies grad knocking around, because they can throw them under the bus when the public get annoyed with their underhand corporate antics: “Sorry about all those sweatshops, but look at this twat and his stupid stuff!”

Maybe Sainsbury's needed to bury a bit of unpleasant news about cutting off migrant workers' hands last week?

One Last "Fuck You" to a Shitty Boss
Can we consider the possibility that one of the in-store "high-ups" there is a total bastard who harangues his employees and writes them up for being four minutes' late off lunch? Maybe someone just wanted to embarrass the cunt. In 2014, creating very tweetable racially insensitive product-display balls-ups is surely the supermarket equivalent of jizzing in the milkshake vat at McDonald's.

Was this a last act of defiance from a soon-to-be-terminated employee/employees, committed after hours, maybe after three cans of Tennent's? It's certainly more imaginative than shitting in the manager's desk, and less effort than dragging a workplace bullying lawsuit through the courts.

Follow Robert on Instagram: @bobfoster83

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