Lands’ End has apologized for featuring iconic feminist Gloria Steinem in its spring catalog as part of its Legends Series. The Q&A was an editorial (titled “Paving the Way”) and promoted as a conversation between its Italian CEO Federica Marchionni and the iconic Ms. magazine founder as part one in a branded content series: an “ode to individuals who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large.”
Tell that to the anti-abortion activists who swiftly stormed the brand’s Facebook page and other social channels with a boycott.
The pro-file Life News stirred things up by noting that it was more than just a conversation: “The company advertised an ERA Coalition logo monogram ‘in honor of Gloria’s work’ and said it would donate $3 to the coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality, Inc., for every monogram ordered now through Jan. 31, 2017. ‘In honor of Gloria’s work, we’ll donate 50% of the monogram fee to the Fund for Women’s Equality for every ERA logo ordered. Add it to your choice of styles. Learn more at landsend.com,’ the catalog reads.”
Indeed, Steinem was photographed wearing a cardigan, t-shirt and jeans from the spring collection as part of the editorial spread, along with the ERA Coalition’s logo.
The outcry sparked a protest that not only led to an apology but the removal of all evidence that Steinem had dropped by for a chat from the Lands’ End website. The irony is that Steinem’s pro-choice stance is not even mentioned in the article. But that didn’t stopped outraged customers, in this highly-charged US political election cycle, from posting comments such as: “Those of us who love family, love children, are completely puzzled why you would promote a very vocal pro abortion celebrity. Is this who you are Lands End? Are you anti-child? You want to kill off possible future customers?”
The retailer also got pushback from some Catholic schools they supply with uniforms and Tolton Catholic High School in Columbia, MO, canceled their business and sent a letter home to parents that stated: “We believe unequivocally that all life is sacred, from conception until natural death. t would be contrary to our school’s very identity to support a company who celebrates the work of someone so opposed to our beliefs.”
Lands’ End issued the following statement on Facebook in response:
“We understand that some of our customers were offended by the inclusion of an interview in a recent catalog with Gloria Steinem on her quest for women’s equality. We thought it was a good idea and we heard from our customers that, for different reasons, it wasn’t. For that, we sincerely apologize. Our goal was to feature individuals with different interests and backgrounds that have made a difference for our new Legends Series, not to take any political or religious stance.”
As Adweek notes, the apparel retailer known for its catalog business and preppy attire such as pictured in its spring issue above has been trying to reach a “younger, cooler crowd” while still “keeping loyal suburban parents happy” in a charge led by the hiring of former North American president of Dolce & Gabbana, Federica Marchionni, last February.
But “those parents weren’t happy with Steinem, and now Lands’ End has backpedaled. It has scrubbed the interview from its online catalog and even retracted the option on its website to donate to the ERA Coalition’s Fund for Women’s Equality. So now, the brand is a laughingstock to pro-life and pro-choice consumers. Couldn’t have played this one much worse, could you?”
The bigger shock might be how the brand thought dropping Gloria Steinem into the garden party above would be welcomed by this country club, barely diverse set in a reverse “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” scenario.
The New York Times reached out on Monday to Steinem, who’s been staying silent on the uproar on her own Facebook page and beyond, for comment—but to no avail: “Blaine Edens, an assistant to Ms. Steinem, said in an email that Ms. Steinem was not available to comment on the controversy, but added that ‘her stance on all issues remains the same, so this is really for Lands’ End to comment on.'”
At the same time Lands’ End’s failed attempt at sparking a feminist dialogue created a stir on Facebook, another feminist effort surfaced on the social network—only this time the brand received accolades from none other than Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The advertiser—P&G’s Ariel laundry brand, whose #ShareTheLoad campaign in India has been receiving praise:
Sandberg helped draw attention to the ad by sharing it to her 1.9 million followers with the comment: “This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen – showing how stereotypes hurt all of us and are passed from generation to generation. When little girls and boys play house they model their parents’ behavior; this doesn’t just impact their childhood games, it shapes their long-term dreams.”
Steinem, now 81 years-old, has spent a lifetime as a women’s rights activist, journalist, author and leader of the feminist movement in the late 1960s and early 70s. A columnist for New York magazine and a founder of Ms. Magazine, her now-classic article from 1969, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” brought her to fame.
No doubt rattled by the whole episode and not expecting the backlash, Marchionni had landed the Steinem interview as part of her commitment to revitalizing the brand and changing its image. Instead, as Quartz concludes, “she seems to have learned a lesson in just how conservative its customer base really is.”
Or as the NY Times puts it, “Lands’ End, a catalog-based company that made its name by selling primary-colored chunky sweaters and khakis, has in recent years struggled to reinvent itself. But now its first order of business appears to be weathering criticism from both sides of the abortion debate.”
Not everyone was outraged by the Steinem interview, of course. In fact, some (see below) customers are more outraged that Lands’ End caved to the pro-life side of the argument. For Marchionni, it’s also a hard lesson in brand publishing—editors and journalists might have had thicker skin in defending the choice of who it interviewed.