Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tempest in a Toenail Polish Bottle

Here's what you should remember about advertising: so much planning, reworking, and second-guessing goes into the process that almost no marketing effort sees the light of day without extensive consideration of its impact. And that includes the buzz or controversy it may generate.

That applies to this J. Crew email ad, in which a mother named Jenna (who happens to be J. Crew's Creative Director) enjoys quality time with her young son by painting his toenails neon pink.

The expected backwash of outrage was immediate, and originated exactly where you would expect it to: in the conservative wingnut backwater that is Fox News.

"This is a dramatic example of the way our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity," wrote psychiatrist Keith Ablow in a FoxNews.com health column. Media Research Center's Erin Brown piled onto the shock wagon, calling the ad "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children." (Note: I'm sure Ablow didn't mean to use the word trappings, but after all, isn't that what they are?)

I'll stick my neck out on this and say there's no reason we shouldn't celebrate transgendered children if that's what they are. What's the alternative -- shame them, or drive them to suicide? The nuns at my mother's Catholic school forced her to become right-handed when she was clearly inclined to use her left and that alone may have made her the shamelessly unsentimental and volatile 83-year-old her six children have been traumatized by for their entire lives, so let's be careful how we interfere with the innate tendencies of children, okay? But there's nothing transgendered about little Beckett, right down to his pink toenails.

You can bet that the business minds at J. Crew had lengthy internal discussions about the effect a simple ad like this would have on the marketplace and the media -- including how the howling nabobs would emerge from the woodwork. And they were right: the cries of outrage come from people who worry more about traditional gender roles than how those same children, and their children and grandchildren, will be impacted by the cost of three simultaneous wars as their educational, health and social needs are ignored in lieu of bombs, tanks and troops.

UPDATE, April 14:

Jon Stewart's take on this controversy captures the full absurdity of the situation:

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