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PR agency thoughts: Are these shoes really sexist, or are we really sensitive?


It seems like no matter where you turn right now, someone is asking whether something is a case of political correctness gone mad. Let’s take last night’s episode of South Park, aired on Comedy Central, for example.
The instalment in question, entitled Stunning and Brave, forms part of the increasingly poignant cartoon’s 17th season, and looks to highlight the hypocrisy of what many would say is a liberal agenda fast becoming more and more aggressive. In it, the outspoken Principal PC leads a charge of fellow gym loving bros who want to fight the corner of every marginalised group in society, with the emphasis on fighting.
It might only be TV, but the fundamental message is much further reaching. At one point does outrage become overblown, and can a reaction actually be worse than the original perceived crime?

As a PR agency we’re all-too used to witnessing the fallout when brands get it wrong- after all, many seem to have a habit of getting it very wrong indeed. Recently, several British clothing brands have also found themselves on the wrong side of the public thanks to their decisions to launch product lines that seem to promote a patriarchal view of gender. Last week, Clarks unveiled its kids shoes, one for boys- named ‘Leader’- and one for girls, christened ‘Dolly Babe’. The Sun newspaper, itself no stranger to controversy regarding gender and sexism, called the retailer out for the obvious faux pas.

How could they get it so wrong?

Perhaps what’s most worrying about this story, at least in so far as confidence in Clarks, is that a similar thing happened in the run up to the beginning of the last school year. September 2016 saw the footwear giant forced to revamp its girls’ range to appease criticisms that the female styles were ‘fussy and impractical’, while those for boys were ‘sensible, practical, durable’. Meanwhile, children themselves have also questioned why the choice for females and males are so often world’s apart.
The point being, you’d hope they would learn from past mistakes. Evidently not, though.
Clarks isn’t then only business in the firing line. Mothercare has been slammed for its ‘Genius’ slogan on boys jumpers, when girls only get words like ‘glitter’, ‘confetti’, and ‘sparkle’. GAP, ASDA, Tesco, and Early Learning Centre have also come under fire for misguided designs.

Are we just too sensitive?

All of which brings about one huge quandary, which is almost impossible to answer without offending someone, somewhere. And that’s precisely the point. Are we all making a fuss over nothing, or is there some greater evil at work here?
The resurgence of feminism in recent years is not without good reasoning. Women still earn an average of £18,000 less than their male counterparts. Deloitte predicts the pay gap won’t be closed until at least 2069. Women are regularly held up for dress code infringements in the work place that centre on whether they look ‘feminine enough’ or not, with political figures even prone to being judged based on what they look like, rather than what they actually stand for.

Sexism is old news, what’s your point?

Ultimately, it’s difficult to categorically argue that blatant sexism in children’s clothing isn’t damaging to their self-perception, or emergent identities. The world is in a funny place right now, wherein on the one hand you have gender neutral summer camps for ‘fluid’ kids, and on the other we re-iterate a stereotype that has existed for several centuries; women are domesticated life-givers, boys bread winning hunter gatherers.
At such an impressionable age, it’s vital for children to be given the belief that they can achieve whatever they set their mind to, otherwise learned expectations have a habit of seeping into everyday actions and behaviours. The likes of Donald Trump, and worse still Vladimir Putin- whose Russian administration voted to decriminalise some forms of domestic abuse earlier this year– certainly don’t help make anyone feel like we’re getting close to genuine equality.

So what should brands take from all this?

It’s pretty simple, really. Effective market research and using other examples as a benchmark for judging whether a campaign, product, or service is suitable aren’t just best practice, by now they should be the only practice- regardless of the specific angle, subject or idea. Without taking these steps it’s impossible to correctly gauge where the line is, and how to stay on the right side of it. Ignoring past infringements, and using too much assumption risks losing more credibility and causing more damage to a reputation than is acceptable.

Looking for more advice on PR, social media, and marketing? Why not get in contact or submit a brief to inject a little ingeniousness into your brand.

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