The arc of marketing

The arc of marketing

Who was wearing these trendy clothes, cooking elegant meals, and going on carefree vacations? Not people of color, at least not in 2016.

PUTNEY — My daughter-in-law, a savvy shopper, inadvertently exposed me to the racism of marketing in the year 2016.

When I was living for several months in California, with my son's family, I would look idly at the catalogs that came almost daily in the mail until I began to pay attention.

Two years before, I had attended a workshop, “White People Challenging Racism,” and with that lens, I found myself studying the images on the pages - colorful outfits for children, highly crafted women's clothes, men's work and dress outfits, gourmet kitchens, ads for travel - and questioning.

Who was wearing these trendy clothes, cooking elegant meals, and going on carefree vacations?

People of color were absent, or relegated to the back pages. Yet I assumed that nationwide such catalogs had been arriving in the daily mail for a rainbow of consumers.

My son's white-skinned family belonged to a Bay Area community that included Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and Black Americans and immigrants from all parts of the world. On its streets I saw an ethnic mix that was strikingly missing in the catalogs' world of fashion, leisure, and homemaking. I thought of the economic impacts for models: who got the jobs, and who didn't.

Accordingly, I decided to grade each company on an improvised scale, from A to F, asking: Were there any images of people of color? If so, were they featured on covers or front pages, or were they mostly invisible, at the back? Did the models have a variety of skin tones and physical features, or did they all look like some version of white?

* * *

I pursued my amateur research over a period of eight months, with the following results.

Catalogs rating A's sold children's gear. Images of frolicking babies and winsome school-aged kids invited customers to buy outfits, shoes, hats, educational materials, and toys: Gap, Lakeshore Learning Materials, Land of Nod, and Boden. The norm for Boden's models, in particular, was a wide range of skin color.

Yet I wondered, were children of color tolerated by the white establishment because they hadn't reached puberty, couldn't vote or run for office, and hadn't yet joined the workforce? If children of color were to leaf through the catalogs, they would find themselves pictured in kids' merchandise, only to disappear when an adult world was on display.

The B catalogs had some diversity and included women's clothing and home décor: Land's End, Pier 1 Imports, and Oriental Trading.

In this group, American Girl, offering dolls and doll accessories, was a mixed bag. I rated the models A for diversity, but gave the dolls a C, since each doll had exactly the same caucasian face, with merely changes in skin tone, hair, and eyes. Their bland expressions had little to do with the feisty, original, and endearing traits of my 8-year-old granddaughter and her friends. A year or so later, when her family moved, my granddaughter had no trouble sending most of her collection of American Girl dolls to the dumpster.

The C category addressed an adult audience, offering clothes, jewelry, household furnishings, trips, and gourmet foods: Sundance, Bon Appétit, L. L. Bean, Chasing Fireflies, Traveler (from Condé Nast's global mass media company), and Soft Surroundings. I observed a smattering of models of color, not prominently featured. Sundance's jewelry artists and Bon Appétit's chefs were almost all white.

I rated D the catalogs with merely token images of models of color: Woman Within and Bella Bliss. In this group, Magic Cabin was a mixed bag: child models, A-minus; dolls, F.

The group of utter failures - the unequivocal F's –– delineated a world of apartheid. Garnet Hill showed clothes, bedding, and home décor, with unhealthily thin white models and one child of color. The Company Store followed suit.

Last came Duluth Trading Co. and The Vermont Country Store. Like the public waiting rooms of my Nashville, Tenn., childhood, “whites only” was clear on every page.

* * *

In the next few years, having returned to my home in Vermont, I continued to monitor catalogs that came in the mail but didn't take action on my findings, except for a few calls to L.L. Bean and occasional letters to The Vermont Country Store.

Responses to these were polite and useless: “We will refer your letter to the management.”

I spoke with a group of friends and asked them to complain to companies they dealt with; I stopped ordering from Vermont Country Store. In my fantasy, all the Country Store's New England customers would boycott until the company included models of color.

In fact, nothing changed. Each catalog contained a cheerful letter about Vermont rural life from the family owners (four white men: Lyman Orton and sons Gardner, Cabot, and Eliot).

In 2020, I was astonished to see a Black woman on the cover of Duluth Trading Company.

The model was Emily Ford, head gardener for a historical estate in Duluth. Wearing jeans and a tank top, she looked self-assured and completely at home. Her hair wasn't straightened. Instead of the posed, anonymous mask one typically sees on models, her expression seemed full of a bemused intelligence.

“O.K., I'll do this shoot,” she seemed to be saying, “And then, if you don't mind, I'd like to get back to my rose bushes.”

The catalog, focused on work clothes for women, had images of women of color throughout.

I thought maybe the millennium had arrived. On the cover of the next Duluth catalog, featuring men's clothing, a man was seen underwater, staring through a high-tech lens at an octopus. The model appeared to be Latinx or Black. “There's no ordinary in your office work,” said the caption.

* * *

I decided to revisit my sources, this time using websites as well as catalogs. Boden continued to rate high, with a diverse mix of models, especially children, though still favoring white women. Land's End showed a range of faces and colors. Duluth Trading Company now showed a diversity of women models, and a few African American men.

Chasing Fireflies had a rainbow family - Black father, white mother, kids who looked like both; no truly dark-skinned people. Sundance's models were on a spectrum from tan to white; all the women had straight hair and the same smile. Black men were light-skinned.

Images of Sundance artists showed a small minority of people of color. Slightly improved was The Vermont Country Store's summer catalog, 2020, with one female model of color, seen on its back pages.

Summer 2020 fashions of Bella Bliss allowed a token Asian model with new fall arrivals including Black children. Did this reflect a genuine change? It seemed too soon for a judgment. My 14-year-old grandson told me matter-of-factly, “Black people are trendy” - perhaps a warning not to expect a permanent revolution.

Bon Appétit's 2020 magazine resembled the 2016 issues, showing one Asian model, with all the rest white. Its online store had a better record, however, with women of different ethnicities and a variety of body types. “They do not look like Barbie dolls,” I noted.

But surfing the net brought a different story.

One link read: “Bon Appétit has become a flashpoint for conversations about institutional racism.” Chefs of color had resigned from the company's video series, citing a hostile work environment, and there were questions about racist posts on Facebook from the white editor-in-chief. By August 2020, apologies, resignations, and attempts to correct the situation were in progress.

L. L. Bean had changed significantly. Of eight catalogues between March and November 2020, four featured models of color on the cover: parents at the beach with a toddler, friends walking dogs, a man traversing a footbridge, and women playing with a child on a suburban lawn.

In all of these catalogs I found Black or Asian women and men within the first few pages - albeit predictably thin, gorgeous, and fit. I also saw middle-aged models, one woman with ample hips, and a fresh norm of relationships, showing couples and friendship groups with differing skin colors.

* * *

When I started this journey, I wasn't yet aware that as early as 1990 there had been research on the deeper issues driving these catalogs. In 2016, Sophia Adodo, then a student at Kent State University, submitted a master's thesis, “The Fashion Runway Through a Critical Race Theory Lens.” I hadn't yet heard of critical race theory; my research consisted only of scanning the pages of catalogs for a spectrum of skin tones.

But for what it's worth, my amateur research gives rise to troubling questions.

• Who controls what we see on the glossy surface or through the storefront display?

• What actually happens in the accountant's office, at board meetings, and in the hiring and retention of employees?

• How do white people in responsible positions behave on social media?

• How are models treated, and do they receive equal pay for equal work?

• Who makes the products on display? Do these workers receive a living wage?

• What lifestyle is being promoted in the artificial world of catalogs?

• What do they say about how human beings, especially women, should look and behave?

When I started this project, I had in mind Martin Luther King's assurance in his speech at National Cathedral, March 1968: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I thought the images in the catalogs would tell me that the arc of marketing ultimately bends toward justice as it benefits business. I found diverse models and liberating changes, but mostly new questions - questions about the strata of influence and decision-making that control what appears on the surface.

I am a consumer, yes, but I seek a balance in which the arc of marketing bends, like a divining rod, to a point where fair profit and diversity meet.

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