By the next day, Tucker Carlson, citing Libs of TikTok, was condemning the ads on Fox News, using anti-gay and anti-trans rhetoric. On Nov. 22, Balenciaga pulled the campaign and issued two apologies. On Saturday, Nov. 27, Kanye West publicly called out celebrities for not speaking out on Balenciaga, a brand he was long associated with until they cut their ties due to his antisemitic comments. The next day, West’s ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, one of the biggest faces of the brand, said via social media that she was left “shaken” by Balenciaga’s “disturbing” campaign.
The story has become viral catnip for conspiracy theorists, who suggest a cabal of child abusers are carrying out their work in plain sight, taunting the rest of us. Just check out the hashtags #BalenciagaGate, #BalenciagaGroomers, #BalenciagaPedos, which are full of bizarre conspiracies, including a factually empty claim that Balenciaga’s chief designer has been photographed holding bloody baby dolls.
Controversial influencer Andrew Tate said that executives at Balenciaga were “satanists” and “pedophiles telling you they’re pedophiles.” (“I don’t know for a fact that Balenciaga are satanists or whatever,” Venti told BuzzFeed News, “but I can see why some would draw that conclusion.”) Some have pushed their own incorrect claims that Balenciaga means “Do what you want” in Latin.
“I definitely want to be clear: The controversy around this is legitimate,” said Alex Kaplan, a senior researcher at Media Matters for America who studies the spread of QAnon conspiracies. “Balenciaga has admitted as much. That said, I have seen some on the far right — particularly the QAnon world — tie it to the broader conspiracy theory they push that this is part of the supposed cabal of pedophiles and child trafficking rings. That’s still not real. But they’re trying to use it as a way to push that.”
So what was Balenciaga thinking? In order to understand, you need to brush up on your media theory. “One way of explaining this phenomena is that companies try to encode particular messages into their products and adverts,” said Steven Buckley, a lecturer in media and communications specializing in US politics and social media at City, University of London. For fashion brands like Balenciaga, the message they want to encode conveys luxury and prestige.
Yet that’s not the code the audience has to decipher if they don’t want to. “They can choose to either accept these intended codes, or they can choose to reject the intended meaning and instead decode and interpret them in their own way,” said Buckley, citing a theory devised by the late media scholar Stuart Hall.