Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Marketing Diversity: WINdows and FAILdows at Holt Renfrew

In case you aren't familiar with Canadian retailers, Holt Renfrew is the high-end department store in the country. Holt's flagship store in Toronto is known for having creative and eye-catching window displays. I walked by there yesterday, and saw that their windows were set up for Valentine's Day in a series of five or six scenes, each featuring a mannequin couple and a mannequin cupid. Most of the couples consisted of a male mannequin and a female mannequin, and most of the mannequins were stark white.

This was the first display that really caught my attention:

There are two male mannequins posed arm-in-arm: one is silver-coloured, wearing a grey suit and funnels on his head; the other is wearing a blue sweater with a blue-checked shirt and ruby-red pants, and carrying a basket. The heart-shaped speech bubble floating above them says, "Stop him in his tracks."

They're a gay Dorothy and Tin-Man! "That's so cute!" I thought. Okay, so maybe it's playing on the stereotype of the flamboyant gay man who loves Judy Garland and musicals. But still: adorable. And it was cool to see Holt's recognizing that they have gay customers whose relationships are just as worth celebrating on Valentine's Day as the relationships of straight people. 

I walked on a few paces, until I got to this display:

A white-coloured male mannequin and black-coloured female mannequin are posed in an embrace. This is the only black-coloured mannequin in the entire store front, so it seems obvious that the display is supposed to represent an interracial couple. The heart-shaped speech bubble says, "Better than chocolate."

"Zuh?" I thought. "I don't... what?" And that's about as far as I've gotten understanding what's going on here. Is "better than chocolate" an intentional reference to skin colour? If so, what is it supposed to mean? Or is the copy just the result of poor decision making, that nobody thought to point out? I really don't know what to make of it. 

After standing bemused for a few moments, I moved on. And saw this:

Two female mannequins, one white-coloured and one brown-coloured, are posed as though caressing each other. The are both wearing lingerie. The heart-shaped speech bubble says, "Entice the Senses."

Oh, the sexy-girl-on-girl-action-! trope. So tired; so objectifying. FAIL, Holt Renfrew. FAIL. 

The people depicted in a company's marketing reflect both their actual customers, and who they want to attract. For over a hundred years, Holt Renfrew was the store of the old-money White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant establishment in Canada. But in the twenty-first century Holt's remade itself - as still sophisticated, but more urbane, and most of all young. Having done customer satisfaction surveys for Holt Renfrew, it seems like a significant portion of their clientèle are still of the old-money WASP establishment, and that they're quite put-out by the direction that Holt's has taken. So I suspect that when the store was designing their widow displays they weren't so much taking diversity into account as a fact of life, as thinking that featuring gay, lesbian and interracial couples in their marketing is a way of signifying, we are young and socially sophisticated

When the depiction of diversity is approached in that kind of calculated way, there's bound to be a certain degree of FAIL. Instead of just illustrating people in all their forms, one is ticking boxes for different kinds of people, and then people become stereotypes. So instead of showing a couple doing something couple-y, and oh, they happen to be lesbians, one ends up thinking, "I have to include lesbians; how do I do that? ... I know! With a stereotype!" And the result is the "Entice the Senses" window of Holt Renfrew's Valentine's Day display.

At the same time, it was still kind of cool to see a major retailer including different kinds of couples in its marketing. It's still notable. I wish it was something that could just be taken for granted.  

Original top image source. Modified with LOLBuilder. Photos of window displays taken by me. 


  1. Huh.

    This is very interesting. I haven't been near a Holt store since I moved to the east coast and I can't say I miss it. Nor am I all for giving cookies to companies for being more inclusive, especially in such a stereotypical manner, but I agree it is note-worthy. It's a start, I guess. And if a major store like Holt Renfrew is doing it perhaps other companies will as well, hopefully much better.

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