Mainstream retailer questions the gender police. I feel giddy.

Is J. Crew a subversive company that questions the cultural paradigm? Or was the decision to publish a photo of a mother painting her small son’s toenails hot pink a deliberate business decision designed to generate controversy and therefore free publicity? Or, maybe both.

I called retail marketing and product development consultant Michael Saylor at ADIG in San Francisco to ask him if this was a brilliant move on the part of J.Crew to get attention. “I wondered if that was subliminally what they had in mind,” he said.  Mr. Saylor tended to believe the decision was not “premeditated” to create a stir, though.

I asked J. Crew, but they’re not saying. Heather Lynch McAuliffe, vice president of public relations said, “We’re not participating in any stories.”

But I have no doubt that the decision was made intentionally. This was not just an innocent photo that the company decided to put into the catalog showing a candid moment between mother and son. Marketers need to get attention. That’s the whole point of what they do. And controversy gets attention. So what can get attention in the whole pink is for girls, blue is for boys marketing milieu? Put a boy in pink. I think it was a pretty remarkable decision.

Mr. Saylor said J. Crew had certainly gotten a lot of attention from consumers who may have forgotten about them, not unlike the recent controversy generated by Abercrombie Kids over a push-up padded bikini top for little girls.

For J. Crew, he said, “The net effect will be positive.”

But unlike the Abercrombie stink, this advertising goes under my heading of positive media. I think J. Crew deserves the attention, because they generated controversy for a good reason – by questioning the gender police.  It’s a good bit of subversive marketing. And it’s directed at adults, not children. So, good for them.

In fact, I find it kind of amusing that there is a petition at to thank J. Crew for this ad. Now that’s a retail marketing campaign of a different stripe.

(For the record, I think the key to not giving your children hang-ups about their sexuality is to not make them question it at five years old. If the mother had said, like certain commentators apparently think she should have, “No, you can’t have nail polish because that’s for girls,” wouldn’t that be more likely to lead to psychotherapy to undo the damage, since you’ve essentially told your tiny, innocent son that he has deviant ideas about his gender?  There is no way I would have said that to my sons when they were five years old. No way.)

Update: There have been many excellent blogger responses to the controversy. I wanted to add this link to a mommy blogger who suggests that those who appreciate what J. Crew and Jenna Lyons have done write to them in support, to counter the negative responses. I love that idea. I often promote letter writing to companies or government bodies to let them know what we don’t like. Here’s a chance to tell one of them what we do like. Positive feedback!   

Sarah Hoffman: J. Crew, I Love You and Thank you, Jenna Lyons


  1. You must be one of those gender-confused, transgendered, unsaved libruls who promote ungodly and unvirtuous identity politics.

  2. Ha! I don't know how you got that one past the spam detector…Thanks for the link to this Culture and Media Institute article, "J.CREW Pushes Transgendered Child Propaganda." Very enlightening.

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