It must have seemed like a win-win at the time. Clothing retailer Lands' End, desperate to refurbish its image into something relevant and chic, featured an interview with legendary feminist Gloria Steinem in its spring catalog, complete with a photo spread of Steinem modeling items from the firm's latest collection. Steinem, for her part, got her new book plugged in the catalog copy.
Now it's all turned into a spectacular embarrassment. Faced with an explosion of outrage from anti-abortion groups and customers, Lands' End has pulled the feature from its website and even appears to have canceled an arrangement to donate $3 to the ERA Coalition/Fund for Women's Equality every time a customer ordered the group's monogram stitched into an item.
Reads a complaint from one poster to the company's Facebook page: "Those of us who love family, love children, are completely puzzled why you would promote a very vocal pro abortion celebrity. ... Are you anti-child? You want to kill off possible future customers?"
The company has issued an abject public apology. "Some customers were troubled and concerned that we featured an interview with Gloria Steinem in a recent catalog," reads the statement. "It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue, so when some of our customers saw the recent promotion that way, we heard them. We sincerely apologize for any offense."
That has provoked a counter-backlash from abortion-rights advocates: "As a long-time customer, I am horrified by this response, which I assure you will create far more hostility than the original interview," responded shareholder activist Nell Minow, also on the company's Facebook page.
The controversy raises the question of what's worse: for a company to stumble into a political minefield or to look craven by capitulating to an outburst of pressure largely unrelated to what it actually published?
The question is especially pertinent in this case because the interview itself is about as innocuous as one could imagine. Conducted by CEO Federica Marchionni, who was hired from Dolce & Gabbana last year to give the Lands' End brand some zip, it nowhere mentions abortions or reproductive rights, but mostly gives Steinem an opportunity to testify to the importance of women's empowerment in the modern world and pitch a new campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment.
Marchionni: "What do you think the key challenges are for women in today's workplace?
Steinem: "For some, it's trying to both look after children and have a work life. For others, it's inequality in general. ... We just need to support each other."
(The full interview, having been assiduously dropped down the memory hole by Lands' End, is a bit hard to find on the Web; the most complete reproduction we unearthed of the three-page printed feature is, curiously, on the Facebook page of the Radiance Foundation, an anti-abortion group.)
What Lands' End didn't count on, or perhaps didn't know, is that at age 81, Steinem has become something of a lightning rod for anti-abortion activism. Most men and women of a certain age probably remember her as one of the more glamorous and articulate figures of the feminist movement in the 1960s and '70s; I recall her neatly disemboweling an anti-feminist female professor during a forum at my alma mater, Colgate University, in 1971.
During her early career in journalism, she became perhaps best known for going undercover as a bunny at the New York Playboy Club for an expose on the treatment of these sexualized waitresses. In 1972, she co-founded Ms. Magazine, which played an immense role in bringing feminist concerns into the mainstream.
But it's her outspoken stand in favor of reproductive rights that gets the anti-abortion movement sizzling. She has written about undergoing an illegal abortion at age 22; indeed, her latest book, "My Life on the Road," is dedicated to Dr. John Sharpe, the London physician who referred her for the procedure, telling her (according to the dedication), "You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life."
Steinem hasn't been shy about speaking up for legal abortion, which she places in the context of personal freedom: "It seems to me that every child has the right to be born loved and wanted, and every person has the right to control — male and female — to control their own bodies from the skin in," she told NPR's Terry Gross for an interview timed to the release of her book in October.
Faced with a torrent of anti-abortion outrage, Lands' End may have folded its hand so quickly because it can't afford to alienate any customers. Like other aging retail brands, the firm has been struggling with stagnant sales since 2011 and said last month it had written down the value of its brand name by as much as $110 million, producing a quarterly loss. It was spun off from underperforming retail giant Sears in 2014.
Aligning itself with a women's icon like Gloria Steinem seemed an innocent way to give itself some style, though critics might cavil that Steinem, despite her record, may not strike a chord with youthful customers today. The fact that the company is reeling from an onslaught that seemed to erupt out of nowhere suggests that marketing today is a lot more complicated than placing svelte models in stylish clothes before the public.