Fat Girl Fails: When Marketing To Women, Don’t Be Tone-Deaf

Big blun­ders by Wal­mart, Sub­way are reminders that social lis­ten­ing is crit­i­cal these days.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

Women’s issues are mak­ing big head­lines and gen­er­at­ing huge view­er­ship num­bers. But recent fails from Wal­mart and Sub­way – even if no mal­ice was intend­ed – point to a dis­con­nect between nation­al con­ver­sa­tion and the con­ver­sa­tion brands have with cus­tomers.

Late­ly, there’s been increas­ing nation­al con­ver­sa­tion about domes­tic vio­lence, harass­ment, pay inequal­i­ty, body image, and oth­er issues relat­ed to and/or impor­tant to the so-called fair­er sex.

In Sep­tem­ber, the per­haps now infa­mous ele­va­tor video footage of Bal­ti­more Ravens run­ning back Ray Rice punch­ing his wife was released, which was fol­lowed by his indef­i­nite sus­pen­sion and a wider dis­cus­sion of domes­tic abuse, includ­ing the hash­tag #Why­IS­tayed, in which Twit­ter users shared their sto­ries.

For its part, frozen piz­za brand DiGiorno, which has 84,000 Twit­ter fol­low­ers and was per­haps one of the big brand win­ners of Super Bowl XLVIII with tweets like, “YO, THIS GAME IS LIKE A DIGIORNO PIZZA BECAUSE IT WAS DONE AFTER TWENTY MINUTES #Super­BowI #Super­S­mack #DiGiorNOY­OU­DID­NT,” learned a pow­er­ful les­son in check­ing con­text before insert­ing itself into social con­ver­sa­tions. That’s because the usu­al­ly on-point brand tweet­ed, “#Why­IS­tayed You had piz­za,” and quick­ly had to shift into apol­o­gy mode.

And DiGiorno cer­tain­ly isn’t the only brand to fail when it comes to sen­si­tive top­ics relat­ed to women’s issues even though the con­ver­sa­tion has not only con­tin­ued, but per­haps even reached a fever pitch in recent weeks.

Like A Fish Needs A Bicycle

Case in point: Even before the NFL brouha­ha, Fun­ny or Die teamed up with Mad Men’s Christi­na Hen­dricks to cre­ate Mod­ern Office, a video that says it exam­ines “which is more old-fash­ioned: her style, her typ­ing skills, or the office’s poli­cies toward women,” and, to date, it has 1.3 mil­lion views.

The Hen­dricks video was fol­lowed by the con­tro­ver­sial video from T‑shirt brand FKH8, Pot­ty Mouthed Princess­es, in which girls dressed head to toe in pink and pur­ple cursed a lot to get the brand’s mes­sage across.

Ask­ing the ques­tion, ‘What’s more offen­sive? A lit­tle girl say­ing f*ck or the sex­ist way soci­ety treats girls and women,’ these adorably artic­u­late lit­tle ladies in sparkling tiaras turn the ‘princess in dis­tress’ stereo­type on its head and con­trast the F‑word with words and sta­tis­tics soci­ety should find shock­ing such as ‘pay inequal­i­ty’ and ‘rape,’” FCKH8 says in a press release.

What’s more, the Mash­able Glob­al Ads Chart, which is pow­ered by pro­gram­mat­ic mar­ket­ing tech­nol­o­gy plat­form Unruly, lists Pot­ty Mouthed Princess­es as the top viral ad of Octo­ber, with more than 784,000 shares.

Then, on Octo­ber 28, anti-street-harass­ment orga­ni­za­tion Hol­laback struck viral video gold when it released 10 Hours of Walk­ing in NYC as a Woman, a video that seeks to illus­trate the extent of street harass­ment and, as of Novem­ber 4, has more than 32 mil­lion views.

It, in turn, inspired Fun­ny Or Die to cre­ate its own street harass­ment PSA, say­ing, “After watch­ing a video of a woman expe­ri­enc­ing over 100 instances of street harass­ment dur­ing a 10 hour peri­od walk­ing the streets of New York City, Fun­ny Or Die News decid­ed to con­duct an exper­i­ment to see what hap­pens to a white man walk­ing the streets of NYC.”

The result, 10 Hours of Walk­ing in NYC as a Man, has near­ly 6 mil­lion views.

These videos have also gar­nered quite a bit of press cov­er­age, extend­ing the con­ver­sa­tion even fur­ther.

And, on top of that, SNL cast mem­ber Michael Che then report­ed­ly chimed in on Face­book with his two cents about the street harass­ment video, elon­gat­ing the news cycle even fur­ther.

And the Hits Just Keep On Coming

But Che and Fun­ny or Die are mere­ly the tip of the pop­u­lar cul­ture ice­berg.

Take singer Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, for exam­ple. With lyrics like, “I see the mag­a­zines work­ing that Pho­to­shop / We know that shit ain’t real / Come on now, make it stop,” and “Cause every inch of you is per­fect / From the bot­tom to the top,”

Trainor’s hit song tack­les yet anoth­er one of these issues and con­tin­ues to top the charts after its debut in June. And, for its part, the music video has more than 220 mil­lion views.

And then there’s Gamer­gate, yet anoth­er head­line-grab­bing top­ic about misog­y­ny in the gam­ing indus­try.

So with all of the videos, hash­tags and head­lines float­ing around, it’s safe to say there’s a lot of atten­tion on women’s issues right now. And, at the very least, brands that don’t want to make seri­ous social mis­steps – which is per­haps to say all of them, except for those that believe there’s no such thing as bad press – could, in the­o­ry, be expect­ed to be cog­nizant of what’s going on in the media and pop cul­ture and to tai­lor their mes­sag­ing accord­ing­ly. Or to at least keep a low pro­file and not overt­ly offend women en masse.

Is This Thing On?

But are brands lis­ten­ing?

For its part, the NFL hired a female CMO, Dawn Hud­son, in part pre­sum­ably to show its female fans it val­ues their con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion and dol­lars.

Time will tell whether the NFL has for­ev­er alien­at­ed its female fan base. But, accord­ing to a report from Reuters, NFL view­er­ship num­bers through Sep­tem­ber were on the rise, indi­cat­ing the brand has poten­tial­ly weath­ered the storm.

In the mean­time, how­ev­er, there were two major brand fails for Hal­loween that illus­trate that while brands may val­ue female dol­lars, they’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly tak­ing these issues to heart until they absolute­ly have to.

Oops…We Didn’t Mean to Call You ‘Fat Girls’

Walmart Fat Girl Costumes

The first comes from retail giant Wal­mart, who, as report­ed by women’s inter­est site Jezebel, had a sec­tion on its web­site labeled “fat girl cos­tumes.”

Once it came to Walmart’s atten­tion, it was quick­ly rela­beled “plus size,” but Wal­mart still man­aged to offend quite a few peo­ple.

Call­ing it a “sen­si­tive and impor­tant issue,” Wal­mart spokesman Ravi Jari­wala told Momen­tol­ogy that the “fat girl” label was “tak­en down very quick­ly” and the brand is “appalled that [the inci­dent] took place.”

We know we have acci­den­tal­ly hurt a lot of people’s feel­ings and there’s noth­ing we can do to change that,” Jari­wala said. “So many of our cus­tomers are women and they deserve bet­ter. Since that incident…we have been review­ing our own process­es to do every­thing we can to pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again.”

Accord­ing to Jari­wala, the brand sub­con­tracts work to third par­ties and it is one of those sub­con­trac­tors that changed the name of “the search result page that was served back to a par­tic­u­lar search engine.”

As a result, Jari­wala said Wal­mart spent “all day Monday…scrubbing the rest of the site.”

The brand has also tak­en steps to make sure this does not occur again in part by increas­ing the num­ber of sub­con­trac­tors that are required to vote on page title changes. Where­as sub­con­trac­tors pre­vi­ous­ly had the abil­i­ty to man­u­al­ly make changes, they must now vote on pro­posed page titles and any “no” votes will be flagged for review by Wal­mart asso­ciates.

How­ev­er, when asked if this inci­dent will impact how the brand speaks to women, Jari­wala said, “We’re hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions right now.”

So, while not inten­tion­al, it also remains to be seen whether female con­sumers large and small will penal­ize the brand and whether this inci­dent will result in a more sen­si­tive Wal­mart more attuned to cur­rent events.

Women Have A Moral Imperative To Remain Attractive Year-Round

Anoth­er fail: Jared Fogle’s favorite quick-ser­vice sand­wich chain, Sub­way, put out an ad telling women to stay skin­ny so they’ll fit into bare­ly there, man-pleas­ing Hal­loween cos­tumes.

The video fea­tures a woman with a six-inch sub who mod­els sexy nurse, Red Rid­ing Hood, Viking, dev­il, school­teacher and foot­ball play­er cos­tumes.

The video was wide­ly panned by pub­li­ca­tions like Time, Today and AdWeek, and, per the lat­ter, it was even­tu­al­ly pulled from the brand’s YouTube page.

Subway Fail

For its part, Jezebel weighed in with, “Luck­i­ly Sub­way is here to help ensure that you don’t scare the chil­dren with any fat rolls while you’re roam­ing the streets in a sexy nurse cos­tume.”

And AdRants, added, “But who are we to get down on a brand for hav­ing a bit of harm­less fun? Wait, what? Harm­less fun? You mean the kind of fun that sets women back 50 years and cements the fact that they’re sex objects?”

A Sub­way spokesman emailed the fol­low­ing state­ment to Momen­tol­ogy:

We under­stand that some peo­ple may not have picked up on the intend­ed humor in our Hal­loween com­mer­cial. Our objec­tive was cer­tain­ly not to offend any­one.”

He did not respond to addi­tion­al ques­tions about impact, if any, on the brand’s efforts to speak to women.

Per­haps the Sub­way team should have watched this video from Buz­zFeed in which men try on women’s Hal­loween cos­tumes to gain a lit­tle per­spec­tive. It has near­ly 1.5 mil­lion views to date.

Don’t Be A Tone Deaf Brands

To be fair, Hal­loween cos­tumes are big busi­ness. While the Nation­al Retail Fed­er­a­tion did not specif­i­cal­ly break out fig­ures for cos­tumes that show a lot of skin, it did say in a press release that con­sumers were expect­ed to spend $1.4 bil­lion on adult cos­tumes this year, which is even more than they spend on children’s getups. The NRF also said the most pop­u­lar cos­tumes for adults were expect­ed to be “tra­di­tion­al options like witch­es, ani­mals or Bat­man char­ac­ters.”

And there was cer­tain­ly no short­age of sexy 2014 cur­rent event cos­tume options, like Ebo­la nurse and Olaf from Disney’s “Frozen”, which, reports say, was actu­al­ly sold out on the dis­trib­u­tor web­site well before Hal­loween.

But the point isn’t to pass judg­ment on cos­tumes, “sexy” or oth­er­wise, but rather to point out a dis­con­nect between nation­al con­ver­sa­tion and the con­ver­sa­tions brands have with con­sumers.

It’s pret­ty incred­i­ble that brands could still be so myopic and insen­si­tive to cur­rent events sur­round­ing gen­der and cul­ture,” said Tes­sa Wegert, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency Enlight­en. “My guess is that mar­keters feel a lot of pres­sure to be fun­ny, and inad­ver­tent­ly take things too far. Social lis­ten­ing is crit­i­cal these days, but the fact that brands are still mak­ing mis­steps sug­gests they aren’t as on top of con­sumer chat­ter as they should be.”

While cre­ative lead time could be a legit issue, Wegert said brands must still keep cur­rent on news trends and the pre­dom­i­nant con­sumer out­look.

Now more than ever brands need to be super nim­ble, not just opti­miz­ing as they go but gen­er­at­ing cre­ative in real-time,” she said. “I can’t think of how else they’re going to ensure they don’t make major, and poten­tial­ly irrev­o­ca­ble, gaffes.”

Do you have any tips for how brands can avoid fails like this? Or do a bet­ter job of social lis­ten­ing?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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