How A Marketing Blunder Turned Bloomingdale’s Advert Into an Ad for Rape Culture

“Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” If someone said that to me, I would seriously question their motives and credibility for encouraging the use of date rape drugs, and more so for suggesting that I drug my best friend.

Those exact words were printed on a Bloomingdale’s ad for the luxury departmental store’s 2015 holiday catalogue. And they made me question Bloomingdale’s motives, capability, and credibility as a company.

Drug-facilitated rape is one of the most commonly reported forms of sexual assault, according to a report by the Justice Department. Around 80% of rapes reported are committed by someone known to the victim.

How could a chain so big (it’s owned by Macy’s) make a blunder as ridiculous as promoting rape culture on an ad that’s supposed to make me want to buy Christmas presents? How did it even pass through the organizational layers of approval that I’m sure Bloomingdale’s has in place to ever reach a final, printing stage? (Did no one see the problem with it??) And most importantly, what were the people at Bloomingdale’s trying to convey? I can only hope that the message they were trying to send was far, far away from the message they actually ended up sending.

Let’s take a look at the photo that accompanies the tagline. The female model definitely looks like she’s enjoying the holidays, but what’s just so off about the photo is the body language of the male model. While she’s looking at the opposite direction, it seems like he’s leering at her from the background, waiting for her to feel the effects of her drink that he’s presumably spiked. Handsome as he is, he looks dangerous, and the overall effect of the photo is creepy. I wouldn’t want my best friend around someone like that.

Coupled with this photo, the tagline becomes even worse. Implicitly embedded in the ad is the message that it’s okay to spike her drink when she’s “not looking”. Her consent isn’t needed, because who needs consent on Christmas?? All will be forgiven because it’s holiday season!

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It’s not a message any responsible brand would want to send to their customers. Especially not a company that has above-average female representation across all levels. (6 of Macy’s 13 board members, and 3 quarters of the company’s managers are women.)

Soon after the catalogue became available in November 2015, the “date rape ad” was called out on social media.

Bloomingdale’s tweeted its response to the backlash it was facing.

But in an age where making a statement without taking any action seems hollow, it just wasn’t enough for me. The ad campaign was conceptualized, planned, and then implemented— Bloomingdales obviously put in a certain amount of effort towards it. So I would liked to have seen the same amount of effort, if not more, being put in by the company to apologize and make amends for promoting rape to sell their clothes.

The situation could have been avoided entirely in the initial stages if only someone at Bloomingdale’s marketing team had noticed the problematic message in the ad, and it wouldn’t have become a PR crisis. But the way Bloomingdale’s PR handled the situation indicated that they didn’t think it was a big deal, and that it would go away with a hollow apology.

Some demanded that Bloomingdale’s donate a share of their profits to a rape crisis center if they were truly sorry, while others wanted the person who approved the ad to be fired.

Personally, I would have been more easy to appease if Bloomingdale’s PR issued a statement explaining that they understood why they were wrong, and the broader consequences of propagating rape culture to a wide audience, rather than citing it as simply “inappropriate and in poor taste”.

To me, Bloomingdale’s as a brand came off looking like it thinks that rape culture is a small issue that only impacts a minority of the population. The company’s marketing and PR teams could both have handled the crisis in a better, more responsible way.

Now, when I think of Bloomingdale’s, I still think luxe— Christmas presents and sparkly indulgences. But I also think about how it unintentionally promoted rape culture due to irresponsible marketing.

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