The worst thing about Victoria’s Secret‘s repugnant “Perfect Body” ad campaign isn’t that it’s hurtful to women, it’s that the giant lingerie retailer refuses to participate in the worldwide conversation it has started.
It’s been NINE DAYS since a trio of UK college students launched an online petition asking Victoria’s Secret to remove ads showing the words “The Perfect Body” superimposed over a lineup of 10 slender, lookalike supermodels.
The ads show up on billboards and mall displays in both the UK and U.S. and promote a new bra style in the company’s Body by Victoria collection. The text on the ads refers specifically to the bra’s name, but the unavoidable double meaning has enflamed women everywhere.
The petition has so far gathered more than 15,000 signatures and sparked a social media squall around the hashtag #IAmPerfect, with most commenters slamming Victoria’s Secret for “body-shaming” anyone who doesn’t resemble the company’s Amazonian Angels.
The company’s response? Not a single word.
The campaign has received blanket media coverage in recent days and the online debate has metastasized wildly, bringing overlapping issues like body image, idealized beauty standards, fat shaming, racial diversity, photoshopped ads and other subjects into the conversation. (Predictably, it has also triggered a backlash from virulent, chauvinistic trolls too.)
If the company’s initial offence in creating the ‘Perfect Body’ ads was unintended (let’s give them the benefit of the doubt), its continuing silence on the issue is both perverse and inexplicably dumb. Especially since defusing the situation would have been so easy. Any PR intern could crank out a boilerplate corporate mea culpa and quell the controversy, like this:
“Victoria’s Secret has always supported women of all kinds and rejects any suggestion that one individual’s body shape or size is more worthy than any other. Our advertising is meant to promote healthy lifestyles and happy women regardless of their appearance. We sincerely apologize for any unintended offense caused by our recent campaign.”
It took me 20 seconds to write that — see how easy it is?
Instead, Victoria’s Secret clings to a public relations strategy that looks like it was borrowed from Hong Kong’s political leaders, who resolutely ignore protesters week after week in the delusional hope that one day they’ll just exhaust themselves, shut up and go home.
What makes this whole episode even more incomprehensible is the fact that body-positive messaging has become the default language of fashion marketing today. Brands have become cheerleaders for their customers and are quick to spread feel-good messages about personal empowerment, self-acceptance and positive self-image, whether it reflects an authentic corporate value system or just an effort to pacify customers for profit.
Victoria’s Secret‘s silence suggests it is digging in for a kind of trench warfare with its critics. Apparently, the opinions of those who are hostile toward its shallow, “thinspirational” marketing are irrelevant to a company that boasts having “the sexiest fans on Facebook.”
It pursues this course, though, at its own peril.
These days, companies that disregard the growing power of consumer activism made possible by social media risk being shunned, boycotted or worse. Smart, socially responsible companies react swiftly and with conviction to legitimate public concerns; those that try to ride out PR storms will feel an impact on their bottom line.
Last week, for example, Wal-Mart was outed online after its website was shown to be offering “Fat Girl Costumes” for Hallowe’en. Wal-Mart responded almost instantly, removing the offending items and offering a credible apology that probably appeased its critics.
But when your customers complain and you ignore them, it shows a fundamental lack of respect and a profound disconnect with the realities of commerce. Witness, for example, the recent outcry against a New Zealand fashion company whose CEO told critics to “get a life” when they complained about skinny mannequins in shop windows. “Clothes look better on skinny people,” she blithely retorted. How many current and future customers did they lose that day?
In some ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by Victoria’s Secret‘s non-reaction to its latest public relations disaster.
In recent years the company has endured a long, repetitive list of PR messes that show it is out of touch with contemporary values. In almost every instance, it has let controversies drag on (sometimes for weeks or months) before ultimately issuing an unconvincing press statement while refusing to discuss the matter further.
When parents complained in 2013 about the ‘Bright Young Things’ promotion that appeared to target teen girls, Victoria’s Secret let the issue reach crisis proportions before issuing a too-late-to-matter clarification. When women launched a petition asking the company to sell bras for mastectomy survivors, it collected more than 100,000 signatures before Victoria’s Secret responded — and said no. (There’s something both stupid and cruel about that.)
For most other tempests — whether they involve photoshopped ads, sexualized slogans on its underwear, lack of diversity in its models, or complaints about ethical sourcing and fair labour practices — Victoria’s Secret has nothing to say.
What can possibly explain such an ostrich-like approach to customer relations, especially in an age where crisis communications is a college credit and most corporations are quick to extinguish potentially damaging firestorms?
The obvious, and cynical, answer is that Victoria’s Secret only reacts when its stock price does (and it opened about $1 down today).
But there’s something deeper, and more worrisome, here. Although Victoria’s Secret supports many worthy charitable causes, it really doesn’t have a social activist bone in its Sexy Little Body™. And despite its enormous cultural influence in the lives of women around the world, including young girls, when it comes to speaking up for women it is stubbornly mute.
Sadly, that is its default position. Women’s ongoing struggle for equality, advancement, acceptance and acknowledgment is someone else’s battle to fight; they just sell bras.
So let me amend my opening sentence.
It’s not their silence that is so appalling, it’s what it implies — a shocking lack of empathy and a corporate ethos that perpetuates the stale chauvinist maxim that women should be seen and not heard. That they should avoid public debate and not trouble their pretty little heads with important issues of substance that involve the rights and values of the community they live in.
In other words, like Victoria’s Secret itself, they should just shut up and let their boobs do the talking.
[NOTE: We contacted Victoria’s Secret and invited them to comment on this issue. They did not reply.]