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.


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 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?