Vera Bradley changes course after ads are labeled a "sexist fail"

"It's Good to be a girl" campaign was supposed to celebrate women, but the internet didn't see it that way

Fashion brand Vera Bradley wanted to celebrate what was special about being a woman with its new campaign. Instead, it alienated its target audience, and now finds itself reversing course.

The company, which is based in Indiana, launched the "It’s Good to be a Girl" campaign at the end of August. To find out what women think is "good about being a woman in society today," the brand recruited Minneapolis creative agency Mono to interview women on the street and turn their responses into posters and social content. The goal was to modernize the brand, according to Erin Keeley, chief marketing officer at Mono, which is partly owned by MDC Partners. The team ultimately interviewed about 100 women.

 The result was a campaign that focused on things like handbags, lattes and shopping. The internet’s reaction was swift and negative.

Last Thursday, tweeter Jasmin Nash wrote, "Vera Bradley’s #itsgoodtobeagirl campaign reduces women to lipsticks, purses and subservience." Late last month, Yahoo Style posted an article labeling the initiative "a sexist fail."

The campaign is composed of six short videos and posters featuring a bevy of influencers, including singer Sara Bareilles, UFC Bantamweight champion Holly Holm and blogger Color Me Nana. In the videos, "Master of None" actress Nöel Wells asks women and girls to share their feelings about their gender experience. The campaign also encouraged viewers to share their opinions using the hashtag #itsgoodtobeagirl.

Keeley said, "We wanted to open up a new dialogue around what modern femininity is." From the reactions online, it seems that it has succeeded in sparking conversation, just not the kind the brand—which was founded by women and has about 100 retail stores around the country—had in mind.

The posters that seemed to have elicited the most backlash appeared in New York subways with messages reading, "We’ll take a handbag over a briefcase any day," "That moment when a gentleman offers you his seat," and one that read, "Ordering a soy-milk half-caf vanilla latte without judgment." 

One tweeter expressed that Always’ "#LikeAGirl" campaign, in which women, boys and men demonstrate an unconscious bias in representing girls as weak, "empowers," while Vera Bradley’s falls flat.

"I hate that a company founded by women is celebrating only the superficial with this campaign, wrote one commenter on Instagram. "Girly" coffee orders, lipstick, spontaneous shopping…none of these are bad, but it feels imbalanced and trivial. For me, it’s #goodtobeagirl in America because I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college with a nursing degree. I am unfollowing so that I don’t become an internet troll."

The response is strikingly similar to a recent Wrangler campaign in the UK. In "#MoreThanABum," the clothing retailer attempted to show that women’s "bums" do not define them, and yet the message backfired. On Facebook, people complained the campaign’s fixation with "bums" didn’t empower women, only sexualized them.

Megan Colleen McGlynn, founder of Girlsday, a group for women in advertising, believes the reactions to the Vera Bradley campaign because it generalized what women wanted, rather than capturing differences.

McGlynn said this is especially true for the "We’ll take a handbag over a briefcase any day" poster. "By using we instead of I it makes it seem like all women have the same opinions, tastes and tote-bag preferences," she said. "Most of the print focuses on what we wear or eat, and that's a tired, depressing trope."

On the other hand, McGlynn said the videos capture a different tone because they feature, "a range of women offering their own opinions."

In one video, girls rock out with Sara Bareilles and discuss why girls who play music are inspirational. 

In another, a female chef says her feminine touch makes her excel in her profession. 

Two more videos are being released soon. One interviews women who are part of a rugby team, and another features MMA fighter Holly Holm taking the day off to pamper herself. Each video ends with the phrase, "femininity is a superpower."

Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, said the campaign has a "multiple personality disorder." She describes the idea behind the videos as "thought-provoking and powerful," but that the posters "reduce and flatten this exploration into sound-bytes that completely miss the mark."

"As a Creative Director, it's painful to see a campaign where strategy unearthed an interesting nugget and then the creative team bungled it totally in execution," said Kat. "It's like having an outstanding chef doing the important and hard work in the kitchen and then having the waiter make bad jokes and ruin the dining experience. Preventable."

Because of the negative reactions, the brand has shifted to a different approach for its poster messages, according to Theresa Palermo, CMO of Vera Bradley. Although the campaign as a whole, she said, has been receiving good engagement levels with an 80% increase in traffic to the website.

"We are balancing our creative more now," she said, "If you actually went back to the same subway that was originally talked about, you would now see additional user-generated content that really speaks more to an empowerment message. We are trying to make sure we are balancing the creative to represent all points of view."

For instance, the latest Instagram post makes sure to quote a girl’s take on feminism. 

Still, for Keeley, the negativity reiterates the need for the campaign. "It’s interesting because there needs to be a conversation about advancing the empowerment of women," she said, "but the empowerment of women doesn’t mean that we should be putting down feminine qualities. So the fact that women do actually like lipstick and some of them love to wear heels, that shouldn’t be a negative thing."

Of course, it’s impossible to please everyone, especially on the internet. Even on Vera Bradleys’ latest Instagram post, which makes no mention of lipstick, purses or other easy signifiers of femininity, a commenter noted, "This campaign has become really gross."

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