Early Monday morning I received an incredulous text from my friend Stephanie. She said that she had just gotten off the shuttle train between Times Square and Grand Central Station that she takes every day, but instead of its typical dull walls, the train was wallpapered with ads that made her think she’d unwittingly boarded a brightly patterned train to the past. Steph, a successful twenty-something accountant, told me she couldn't believe the hot pink, sexist bullshit assaulting her weary morning eyes. She was still in New York City, right?
The ads are part of the “It’s good to be a girl” campaign from handbag and accessories company Vera Bradley, best known for its brightly colored, quilted totes. While many women will recognize the bags as a mainstay of college campuses, the last few years have seen a downswing for the brand—it recently announced it would be shifting gears to target professional millennials, like my friend Steph, to help turn the tide.
Unfortunately, however, for many women, these efforts have had the complete opposite effect. The new ads, unleashed upon New York City earlier this month, saw a near immediate backlash online, with onlookers noting that they are both “infantilizing” and “overwhelmingly gender-normative.” They’re enough to make any feminist wonder what we’ve been working towards all these years.
Each ad, seen exclusively in subway cars throughout the city, lists a reason why being a "girl" is allegedly great. While, indeed, there are some reasons why being a female is great—rampant sexism and the enduring patriarchy aside—the campaign doesn't quite capture any of these reasons, instead offering a very narrow view of a feminism.
For example, one reason why it's good to be a "girl," according to Vera? “That moment when a gentleman offers your his seat." Huh? As if using the term “girl” to address women isn’t demeaning enough, toss in the trope that men must accommodate the fairer sex in the midst of a morning commute (even if that woman is, say, his BOSS) and you've got some sexist ad copy on your hands.
Vera also claims being a girl rules because we’re good at “multitasking like a champ by juggling coffee, makeup and emails.” They say women can’t have it all, but it sure sounds like we can! We have the mental fortitude to disguise our faces using mass-marketed products because we’re told since a young age that we must do this so men will find us attractive, all while drinking caffeine and doing our jobs. I don’t know, Vera. That sounds like a bit too much for me.
In perhaps the most offensive ad of them all, Vera also muses that it’s good to be lil lady nowadays because “we’ll take a handbag over a briefcase any day.” Wait, what? Sorry, but I don’t recall that being a conscious decision we’ve made. Men carry briefcases, women carry handbags—that’s how normative parents raise their children. To imply this was ever a choice displays a level of cultural tone-deafness that is particularly bad, given the target buyer.
The company announced its new marketing strategy this year amid plummeting sales. According to the Washington Post, in 2015 Vera Bradley experienced a 10.6% decrease in comparable sales, "a measure of its sales online and at stores open more than a year." And in 2016, they're down 6.1% thus far. While they have a captive consumer in teens and older women, the millennial has eluded them. In recent years, they’ve incorporated more leather and less quilted cotton prints in an effort to reach yuppies, but have failed to make their mark.
“We lost sight of what she needed in her world,” Theresa Palermo, Vera Bradley’s chief marketing officer, told the Washington Post earlier this month of the 25-to-35-year-old female consumer. Palermo shared that they're targeting the “daymaker,” a type of person and word dreamed up by the brand itself.
A daymaker is a woman who CEO Rob Wallstrom described in a March 9th earnings call as one who “strives to make her day and the days of others,” according to BuzzFeed. Wallstrom also said they're “choreographers," are able to “balance 1,000 things," and are “joiners,” not loners. It's the marketing version of the manic pixie dream girl.
In a statement provided to me from Vera Bradley CMO Theresa Palmero, she said, "Vera Bradley created the It¹s Good To Be A Girl campaign to celebrate femininity. The platform gives women of all ages and backgrounds an opportunity to tell us why they love being a girl. We welcome all of their reasons and points of view, from the heartfelt and empowering to the frivolous and hilarious."
While Palermo said the campaign welcomes all points of view, she would not provide a direct response to criticism that the ads are inherently sexist. In a post on the Vera Bradley blog earlier this month, the brand all but confirmed its sexist point of view, and explained its use of the term "girl":
We want to prove the value of femininity by celebrating all of the reasons why it’s good to be a girl. We use the term “girl” a little differently than its definition. It’s more than just a noun or synonym for young female. It’s women who mix socially or belong to a particular group, team or profession. It’s a fun and rejuvenating celebration of femininity. It’s inclusive of every age, race and geographic location. If we eliminate the word from our vocabulary, we have no girl power, girls’ night out, girls’ weekends or the answer to Queen B’s iconic question: Who runs the world?
Contrary to popular belief, just because something works for Beyonce doesn't mean it will work for you. These ads might be aimed at women who like to make others' day, but so far, it only seems to have ruined a few morning commutes.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.