retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

There’s a fine line between flattering and affronting the female consumer through cheeky humor, and Nine West just crossed it with a stiletto-heel pump.

In its new store displays and print and social media campaign, the brand is touting shoes for specific occasions, including “Starter Husband Hunting” (leopard print heels paired with an arrow and target) and “Drunch” (for drunk at lunch). Another ad shows a woman with a pair of flip-flops tucked into a Nine West tote for the “Anticipatory Walk of Shame” home after a night spent elsewhere.

The ads are meant to use edgy “girlfriend” humor to appeal to women ages 25 to 49, but social media has largely labeled the campaign “sexist” and “offensive.” Twitter lit up with the hashtag #nonewest and these two Facebook summed it up for many:

“Stupid Campaign 9W. Love your shoes but don’t patronize your customers by an outdated ideal. Women are hunting success and goals, dreams and visions. Not husbands.”

“Seriously out of step, Nine West. On what planet, and in which century, are their target customers living??”

I agree. The circa 2014 single working women I know don’t spend their days plotting to snag a first husband, boozing it at lunch or feeling “shamed” after a evening out. Rather they are focused on career advancement, working through lunch and owning their personal/lifestyle decisions.

And the “First Day of Kindergarten” ad is an insult to mothers who work both in and out of the home. It shows a woman in 4 1/2 inch heel peep-toe booties and crumpled, teary tissues on the floor. The copy reads: “The bus arrived and so do the waterworks. Then it hits you Mommy now has the weeks off. Wipe those sad happy tears.”

Weeks off? Does the term “working mother” mean anything to Nine West? When women make up 47% of the work force, and four in 10 American households with children under age 18 now include a mother who is either the sole or primary earner for her family? Multi-tasking stay-at-home mothers don’t view the start of kindergarten as a vacation requiring high heels, either.

Nine West marketing exec Erika Szychowski told the New York Times she was “comfortable that (the campaign) will make noise and it will get attention, and my gut tells me that it’s not offensive.”

Which begs the larger question that we frequently pose here at MNB: If a company thinks a campaign or product could be offensive or problematic, doesn’t it make sense to canvass a larger audience than the in-house team? (Recent examples: The Hershey logo that resembled the pile of poo emoji, and the utterly appalling Urban Outfitters/Kent State sweatshirt.) Especially when offended consumers can inundate your Facebook page and Twitter in seconds.

Nine West’s Szychowski defended the tone of the ads, saying: “And it’s not just my gut but the incredibly active, large community of people that we work with both internally and externally — it’s actually resonating for them.”

I would agree the campaign has generated noise, but there is more static than a clear message. And I find it hard to believe that not one female employee, whether single, married or a working mother, in that “large community” didn’t raise a hand and say hey, this edgy brand of humor could really put off our customer base. How about a shoe for life occasions such as first promotion, passing a board certification, night out with the girls or Sunday with the family.

Or even better, feature my favorite Facebook response from a customer who sent in a photo of her very chic, fashionable high heels with the caption:

“These shoes just made a presentation in front of 100 men. Shoes can also do such things apart from husband hunting, just the way women can.”

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