March 2, 2016
Lands’ End, Gloria Steinem, and when PR-think goes too far
by Kait Howard
Lands’ End, the classic clothing retailer of many of our childhoods, has bowed to its conservative customer base by apologizing for featuring women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem in its latest catalog.
The New York Times’s Katie Rogers reports that Lands’ End was “scrambling to disentangle itself from the feminist icon” after a interview with Steinem conducted by the company’s new chief executive Frederica Marchionni—part of their new “Legends” feature—“prompted criticism from parents at Christian schools and anti-abortion activists.”
“[W]hen the catalogs landed in mailboxes last week, the interview—illustrated with photos of both women sitting on a beige settee—met with swift reaction. Anti-abortion activists and bloggers expressed their displeasure. Some Christian schools that recommend only Lands’ End products for uniforms moved to cut ties with its lucrative school uniform business. Boycotts were threatened.”
While Steinem didn’t discuss abortion in the interview, her appearance in the catalog was enough to ignite fierce anger. The president and principal of Father Tolton Catholic High School in Columbia, Missouri, told Rogers that, following complaints from parents who object to Steinem’s support for abortion rights, the school has cancelled its contract, by which the school “recommended only Lands’ End products to its 292 students in exchange for a percentage of the profits.” And the vice president of College of the Ozarks, a Christian college also in Missouri, released a statement expressing “disgust with the pro-abortion agenda touted in [Lands’ End’s] recently released spring catalog.”
Surprisingly, or not—depending on much time you might have spent as a child poring of the Lands’ End catalog, absorbing its golden vision of picture-perfect, hetero-normative family life—the retailer quickly moved to placate angry customers, apparently pulling the interview from their website, and posting a wimpy apology on Facebook, reading:
“It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense.”
There was, of course, a backlash to the backlash, as other customers took to Facebook criticizing the decision to pull the Steinem interview and vowing never to purchase anything from Lands’ End again. “I’m sorry you see equal rights for women as a divisive issue,” one commented. “I see it as a human issue.”
Still, much of the media coverage has looked at Lands’ End’s move purely from a public relations perspective. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Rick Romell focused on reactions from a number of marketing professionals, most of whom agreed that Lands’ End had erred by featuring Steinem—“It’s just been a bad decision to associate your fantastic brand with something that was polarizing,” University of Wisconsin marketing professor Neeraj Arora told Romell.
Which is when all of us who market books—from the politically detached to the radically progressive—emit a sigh of relief that we don’t have to think in these terms.
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.