Sometimes even when our hearts are in the right place, our brains are slow to follow.
Take Reese Witherspoon's Draper James fashion label and its brainless, coronavirus-inspired giveaway of dresses to schoolteachers.
Noble idea, it would seem, but one that has ended up as one of the worst marketing flops in the age of the pandemic, helping reinforce the perception that certain companies and public figures are milking the crisis for their own benefit, which has ushered in hashtags like #covidwashing and #celebritycovidwashing.
In short, Reese Witherspoon can't do math. If you want the gory details, check out Vanessa Friedman's juicy blow-by-blow in the Times. Those quoted in the story and readers who commented on it seem to acknowledge that the company apparently didn't mean any harm when it put on a raffle that turned out to be more popular than anybody expected and that ended up disappointing everybody who didn't win — which was pretty much everybody who entered the contest.
But when it comes to brand marketing in the age of social media (and now, pandemics, where the public's kindness and patience are pretty much shot and such concepts as understanding and forgiveness have gone the way of haircuts and trips to the shopping mall), there's no such thing as an A for effort. You either pass or you fail.
And there's little doubt that this debacle will be a text-book case for many years to come, held up not just as a colossal brand failure but yet one more example of a hopelessly out-of-touch celebrity.
The best brand efforts during the pandemic have been those that are actually selfless — like TripAdvisor's campaign to help those most impacted by the paused travel industry, or donations to healthcare workers of food, protective masks and other items by companies like McDonald's, Dominos and KFC. Others have made large donations to those on the frontlines. (Ad Age is keeping a running tally of how marketers are responding to the coronavirus.)
At the end of the day, if Witherspoon and her label had seriously wanted to help the cause while also coming off as charitable, they'd have been better off just writing a big check to the Red Cross or a hospital in New York City. Or, here's an idea: You're a fashion brand. Fabric is your lifeblood. Why not manufacture and donate masks instead of giving away, you know, "ugly dresses I wouldn't be caught dead in," as one Times reader wrote. (Another reader cynically suggested that perhaps the dresses the company picked to give away were styles that didn't sell all that well in stores and that were, therefore, in ample supply in the warehouse.)
But Reese and her company didn't write a check or make masks. Instead, their ill-conceived, bungled stunt served only to damage the reputation of the Southern-flavored fashion label as well as that of the actress herself (whose public image was already tainted thanks to some of her past shenanigans, most notably: "Don't you know who I AM??"). Not to mention sullying the names of both sets of Witherspoon's grandparents, for whom Draper James is named.
Oh yeah, I brought the family into it. (Or, rather, she did.) Bring it, Reese.
Here's the thing: Of all the groups I wouldn't want pissed off at me, schoolteachers would have to be right at the top. They are vocal, they are organized, and they can be (lest you forget all those times you got detention) very punishing.
Now, Reese, for your punishment, I would like for you to write 100 times: "I will not be another spoiled, tone-deaf, opportunistic celebrity."