Brittany Venti, a 25-year-old from Texas, first noticed the Balenciaga ad campaign when she was scouting around for fashion news for her YouTube channel, Saturday Supermodel.
The French luxury brand’s Spring/Summer 2023 collection campaign featured two young girls holding teddy bears in bondage outfits. “I was like, That’s really messed up,” Venti told BuzzFeed News. “They’re holding fetish gear. They’re promoting people’s kinks. And it’s not even a brand that’s supposed to be marketing toward children for any reason. They’re just using the children to market these fetishes.”
Venti posted her first TikTok about the Balenciaga ad on Nov. 20; it went on to be viewed 3.2 million times.
She subsequently posted three other videos about what she considered the sexualization of young children by the fashion brand. “Balenciaga is using children to promote sexual deviancy and fetish gear,” Venti said in one video.
Little did Venti know that her Nov. 20 TikTok would have such a resounding effect. Later that day, word of the Balenciaga campaign went mega-viral after YouTube commentator Shoe0nHead tweeted about it. (BuzzFeed News understands that Shoe0nHead was tipped off to the existence of Venti’s first video by a fan.) The imagery caused a Fox News firestorm and played into long-standing right-wing conspiracy theories.
In her tweet, Shoe0nHead revealed another element to the story: That a separate Balenciaga campaign included scattered court papers from a 2008 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Williams (2008), which criminalized the sharing of images of child sexual abuse. Within a half hour, ShoeOnHead’s tweet had gained the attention of right-wing account Libs of TikTok.
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.
"QAnon followers choose to reject the obvious messaging simply because the messaging is coming from an elite fashion brand."
What to most people would be a random selection of papers scattered on a desk to show the kind of aspirational, busy, business-driven customer Balenciaga wants became a coded appreciation of child abuse. What were admittedly poorly thought-out items of teddy bear clothing for a high-fashion editorial photo shoot, when put through the social media outrage wringer, became an attempt to sexualize kids using BDSM outfits.
“Given that certain people have consumed large amounts of QAnon cult ideology,” Buckley said, “they are predisposed to assume that the brand is pushing pro-child abuse messaging.”
The categorical denials from the fashion house that it was promoting child abuse haven’t been enough for some, who continue to share conspiracy theories on social media. (On Nov. 25, Balenciaga filed a $25 million lawsuit against the producers of the shoot that included the Supreme Court papers. The brand clarified that it wasn’t taking legal action against the photographer of the teddy bear shoot.)
“In the case of Balenciaga, QAnon followers choose to reject the obvious messaging simply because the messaging is coming from an elite fashion brand,” Buckley said. “And according to their worldview, anything coming from the 'elites' cannot be trusted or taken at face value.”
Some are even concocting evidence to be outraged against. Layah Heilpern, a crypto influencer and marketing consultant, has twice tweeted in recent days that it isn’t fair that Balenciaga’s app remains on the Apple App Store while Twitter allegedly was being threatened with a ban. Yet Balenciaga doesn’t have an app on the App Store.
As for Venti, she said that she didn’t see a direct link to QAnon conspiracies. “I do think their photo shoot was child abuse,” she added. Venti also said she plans on digging deeper into Balenciaga — and posting new videos soon.