Believe it or not, I was handed this very bag yesterday, and suddenly found myself carrying it around. Yes, in public!
The whole chain of events was innocent, and took me completely by surprise. My 13-year-old daughter Q, whose birthday is next week, had emailed me a link to some clothes she likes on the Hollister website—a sweatshirt, yoga pants, a-long sleeved striped t-shirt. It was all perfectly tasteful, basic clothing, and it was all on sale. What wasn’t a mom to love?
Rather than ordering online, I decided to stop at the mall so I could see the colors in person (and not have to pay shipping, because yes, I’m cheap like that). When I had decided what to buy, I paid, then reached out to take my purchase—in the bag pictured above. I can imagine that whole scene in slow motion: The cute salesgirl smiling as she reached across the counter with the bag, my hand extending to meet hers then pausing in mid-air as the bag came into focus, suddenly unable to go those extra couple inches to take my purchase off her hands.
Somehow, the bag ended up in my hands and the salesgirl turned away to fold some sweatshirts. I just wanted out of the store, to distance myself from the source of the inappropriate marketing. As soon as I stepped into the bright mall, though, I realized I was fully exposed—the consumer’s version of the Walk of Shame.
Yes, I’m somewhat dramatic, and also out of touch. I hardly ever go to the mall, and I don’t look at magazines or websites that stores like Hollister advertise in. Clearly, I’m not their market—fine, I get it. But my 13-year-old daughter is?? That, I’m not so fine with.
Getting to the heart of what’s wrong
In an attempt to have a sense of humor about it, as well as express my dismay and see what others thought, I posted this on Twitter, along with the photo of the bag:
birthday shopping for my 13-YO means being seen in public carrying this: [insert above photo] #sowrong
The responses immediately came flooding in, including everything from “That’s disgusting,” and “wow. That is just … Wow. Did I say wow?” to “Don’t even get me started on marketing that to young girls” and “bwahahahahaha!” Clearly I’m not the only who feels like this marketing tactic is over the top.
Once that was established, then I moved on to trying to figure out why. What exactly bothers me about this approach to branding? There’s plenty that bothers me as someone who develops brands professionally, but what is it that bothers me as a parent?
It’s not that I think the human body is inherently shameful or obscene.
It’s not that I think an image alone can corrupt my daughter, or that she isn’t capable of thinking critically about the world around her.
It’s that when my daughter buys a perfectly nice, practical, non-suggestive sweatshirt, she doesn’t just get the sweatshirt. She’s also being sold a suggestion about what that sweatshirt stands for—what it says about anyone who likes it and wears it. Suddenly it’s that much harder to just be her—to be this wonderful, witty, outgoing, smart girl full of great ideas who happens to be wearing a sweatshirt. The associations and messages the sweatshirt carries, however subtle they might be, eclipse a small part of who she is.
What’s a parent to do?
One of the funny things about Twitter is how you’re suddenly interacting with people you’d never expect to encounter. Yesterday, it was the manager of that very Hollister store who was suddenly tweeting me: what I appreciate…is that you don’t forbid your daughter from wearing what she wants because of the bag
True. I don’t think that would accomplish much of anything. Instead, I’m planning to strike up a lively conversation about marketing with our daughters, over dinner some time soon. I’m sure Q will be embarrassed. She’ll also probably laugh and say I’m reading WAY too much into this. (I can hear her now: It’s just a bag!)
But it’s a bag that feels wrong, in so many ways—a bag that’s being handed to and carried by thousands of teens who think they’re just buying a piece of clothing. A conversation may not mean the end of Hollister clothing in our lives, but it could be the beginning of a train of thought that’s much bigger—one that long outlasts this teenage fad.