This year yoga lifestyle retailer lululemon gets lots of attention for promoting an Ayn Rand character on its shopping bags.
Occupy Your Yoga Pants: Lululemon’s Toxic Mix Of Commerce And Ideology
Todd Essig, Contributor | www.forbes.com | 11/21/2011
Lululemon, a company that sells high-end yoga and workout gear to people, well, people like me, really stepped in it with their new Ayn Rand tote bag. The company has shown a genuine disrespect towards customers by remaining irony-free and proudly defiant in their effort to promulgate an ideology many find repugnant, dangerous in its popularity, inconsistent with the companyâ€™s mission to date, and just plain dumb and wrong.
Just the other day, before I found out about the tote debacle, Lululemon was my first stop for an autumn running shirt suitable for a 5K charity Turkey Trot, and they had exactly what I wanted. The shirt was functionally luxurious. I was all set for Thursday; when I crossed the finish line I was going to look good and feel great.
But then I learned the company has been ginning up support for Randâ€™s ideology of selfish rationality: â€œWho is John Galtâ€ (a character and phrase from Atlas Shrugged) is emblazoned on a new version of their hip tote bag and the company blog proudly proclaims founder Chip Wilson built Lululemon on a Rand-esque â€œquest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness.â€
Huh? All of sudden that shirt no longer felt so luxurious, it just felt expensive.
Mr. Wilson and Lululemon can, of course, believe anything they like. This is America, even for a Canadian company. And even in our horribly polarized country, short of a well-thought out boycott, thereâ€™s no reason not to do business with people with whom one disagrees philosophically, or even politically. But disrespect is not disagreement. And Lululemon crossed the line. Feeling disrespected should not be a price any customer gets asked to pay for a piece of clothing, no matter how useful and stylish.
What Lululemon fails to appreciate, and may hurt their business, is that their customers are not stupid. We may be overly self-involved; maybe we value our workouts more than we should; and perhaps we believe, when we do exercise, we should be coddled in luxurious fabrics designed to remove perspiration from our skin as quickly as possible while looking good, really good. But weâ€™re not stupid. We know what it means to have â€œWho is John Galtâ€ inscribed on a shoulder bag.
First, â€œJohn Galtâ€ is a symbol for the Tea Party. Inscribing it on your bag signals support for the rhetorical excesses of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, for Paul Ryanâ€™s privatization of Medicare, for being against health-care reform, and for Republican refusal to compromise on revenue in the deficit reduction debate. One may want â€œJohn Galtâ€ to be a generic symbol for excellence and greatness, but it is not. Agree or disagree with the message, the message is still clear.
Next, Lululemon is also asking customers to signal a preference for ideology over reason, for politics over science. The behavioral sciences have amply demonstrated that Randâ€™s vision of human nature is simply wrong, however much it embodies a utopian capitalist vision designed to be a mid-century counter-weight to the communist utopian vision that caused so much suffering (note: Randâ€™s family lost everything in the Bolshevik Revolution revolution and then fled to the USA in 1926). Many have that preference. But to present ideology as excellence is just insulting. It diminishes everyone who does strive.
But thereâ€™s more disrespect present. This is not nothing they are asking their customers to do. Speech, even just words on a bag, is also always an action, and actions have consequences. Sauntering around town with a Tea Party message on oneâ€™s bag incrementally shifts the center of our political discourse to the right, just like Che Guevara tee-shirts but in the opposite direction. If youâ€™re on the right and think Iâ€™m making a big deal out of nothing, let me ask how you would feel if Brooks Brothers or Wal-Mart started putting Cheâ€™s picture on reusable shopping bags provided with each purchase?
And it gets worse. There is a powerfully subtle psychological manipulation taking place. We know from the research into cognitive dissonance that when something weâ€™ve already done conflicts with previous opinion, to minimize the resulting dissonance people change their opinion in the direction of what they did. Makes sense: you canâ€™t undo whatâ€™s been done and you are motivated to reduce the conflict. Therefore, the only option open is changing the opinion. Applied to Lululemonâ€™s disrespectful tote bag, that means people who just want posh pants end up having their opinions shifted in ways with which they might not otherwise approve.
So, I decided to occupy my yoga pants (or long-sleeved running shirt which is what is true but please allow me some poetic license). Back to the store I went. When I returned my purchase the cheerful sales staff got really defensive, but no less cheerful, and refused to engage in any conversation about what their company was doing, other than with cult-like sincerity refusing to consider that their tote bag message could possibly mean anything other than what the company was saying it meant.