For those who haven’t seen this story making the rounds on the internet, JC Penney caused a social media storm with a shirt for girls age 7-16 that reads, “I’m too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” Within hours, Tweets and Facebook posts condemning the shirt hit JC Penney, and they pulled the shirt from their inventory on their website. I’ve also seen some defense for the shirt on the Facebook comments to the tone of, “It’s just a shirt people, get over it! We’ve got bigger problems in society!” Obviously, this is causing some controversy and damage control, so let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly, shall we?
JC Penney’s response time was immediate, and they decisive action by pulling the inventory from the site. They recognized that they’d angered a lot of their customers, and took steps to immediately rectify the problem. This speed shows that they’re paying attention to their customers, and keeping up with the buzz about their brand. They’ve also come out with statements apologizing to their customers, and detailing how they plan to keep this from happening again. In all, I think JC Penney has done a great job responding to the public’s opinion.
While JC Penney appears to be in touch with customers now, it seems they were way out of touch with customers when the shirt was printed and placed online for sale. They wouldn’t be doing damage control in the first place if they’d assessed their values and customer base prior to putting the shirt online. Their head of communications commented that she didn’t know how this happened, which means there’s some serious issues in their communications channels. They’ve also wasted time and money to bring this product to market, and now they must scrap all that inventory. Their time and money would’ve been better spent holding a focus group or developing other ideas to replace the message on this shirt.
This shirt sends a pretty controversial message to most people who read it. The sentiment that pretty girls don’t do homework, or that a boy needs to do a girl’s homework, tends to feed into the already overwhelming messages of body image, gender roles, and capabilities. Several Facebook commenters write that there are already too few women in STEM careers, and telling them from a young age that “pretty” and “homework” don’t mix will further alienate the “smart” girls. By suggesting that boys do their homework, some commenters state that it furthers the feeling that girls are not as smart as boys. In short, this message coincides with a lot of negative messaging, and JC Penney should think twice about promoting a message that could be considered offensive. Whether they meant to be cute or funny, the message was sure to hit a sour note among consumers.
Time will tell whether JC Penney will face more than just verbal consequences for this misstep, but I think they’re handling the response well. Hopefully next time they’ll spend more time on preventative measures, to produce a product that resonates with their consumers and their brand values. With the speed of communication and the widespread use of social media, companies need to be much more diligent when considering controversial messages on their products.