In the latest chapter of the "Marketers: What Were They Thinking?" handbook, Walmart made headlines today when a customer discovered that the country's number-one retailer was selling Halloween outfits labeled "Fat Girl Costumes."
Alerted by an angry reader, the Web site Jezebel broke the story at 9:15 a.m. today, and negative reaction on social media was swift. However, it took Walmart two hours to remove the offending ads from its Web site and Facebook page. Additionally, Walmart's initial generic sorry/not sorry tweet, "Your comments and suggestions are important to us and help make Walmart even better. Thank you" on Twitter did nothing to assuage angry customers.
The company later issued an apology via the press but not directly to consumers. "We first heard about it this morning—our teams immediately engaged, we're working it to remove it as soon as possible and make sure it never happens again," Walmart spokesman Ravi Jariwala told BuzzFeed News. "This should never have been on our site. It is unacceptable and we apologize. We are working to remove it as soon as possible and ensure this never happens again."
It's mind boggling that in 2014, some marketers are lacking either general common sense or sensitivity or are under the misguided notion that a campaign gone awry falls into the "There's no such thing as bad publicity" category. Although "Fat Girls" costumes were cloaked in relative anonymity on its Web site, the company decided to promote the attire on its Facebook page. Thanks to the Jezebel article, which was later followed up by other media outlets, Facebook comments included "Wow, 'fat girl costumes?' You and your marketing department should be ashamed! Did you forget the 'anorexic costumes' section? I don't go to your stores very often and it may just stop altogether now. I'm putting you right up there with the Abercrombie and Fitch 'campaign to alienate customers.'" That comment and more recent posts are being expunged as quickly as the company's Facebook's monitors obliterate them.
Indeed, customers, especially those who feel that they have been shunned, have long memories, and company slights still reverberate. In 2006, comments by then Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries in a Salon interview created an uproar when he unabashedly said that brand targeted just "attractive" teens.
"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," Jeffries said. "Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."
In 2010, Urban Outfitters similarly drew ire with its release of "Eat Less" T-shirts. The company again stepped in it in September 2014 with its release of a one-of-a-kind 1969 Kent State sweatshirt sporting faux blood stains and bullet holes. That stunt was met with predictably outraged customers tweeting comments such as "Urban Outfitters are truly disgusting and I will not be buying from them again."
Last year, Target garnered negative attention when a customer tweeted screen shots of two different versions of the same dress from Target's Web site. A plus-sized version of a dress was dubbed "Manatee Gray" although the identical dress in the smaller size was called "Dark Heather Gray."
However, in this case, Target nailed customer service. The agent monitoring the company's Twitter account not only personalized the reply to the offended customer by addressing her by name, but also told her that Target was taking actionable steps by forwarding her tweet to the appropriate department. Target subsequently tweeted directly back to the customer, telling her it that it "heard her" and was working to fix the "oversight ASAP." Subsequently, the company removed the label and said, "We screwed up, and are sincerely sorry."
As with the case with Walmart and Target's customers, and Jezebel's readers, companies would be well to remember marketing consultant Jay Baer's words, "Today, technology changes and social media have created a scenario where every customer is a reporter."