Pink toenails and the end of gender rules

Hats off to J.Crew president and creative director Jenna Lyons who had the good taste, confidence, and authenticity to let marketing send an email out to their database featuring a photo of her son with his freshly painted neon pink toenails. It’s about time we saw that kind of authenticity in advertising.

Some people didn’t really see it that way, which is really just another way of saying they didn’t really see it all. Outraged critics said the ad celebrated transgendered children, as if that was a bad thing. Is it better to hide them all away in locked chests, and pretend they don’t exist? The critics seem to forget they are talking about living, breathing human beings, with parents and siblings, eyes, ears, and — I don’t know — feelings and choices of their own.

“This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity,” psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow wrote in a Health column about the ad. The key word in that sentence being “trappings.” Gender rules exist primarily to trap consumers into thought patterns that encourage more spending. People can figure out their own leanings without a bunch of arbitrary societal gender rules.

We are now beginning to see, at last, that gender rules are no longer all that relevant. Authenticity is relevant, and J.Crew seems to get that, at least with this ad.

Why there was any debate at all about it, be it on Fox News, Sodahead (40 pages of comments? Come on!), in the social media world (a 500 tweet blip on Twitter), or wherever, suggests simply that people have too much time on their hands. Who cares if a boy likes neon pink toenails? Maybe he’s color blind. Maybe he just likes pink. Who cares? Jenna Lyons has at least one value — that of open-mindedness — that I’d like to see in the future mother of my children, or at least in society at large.

If we took gender rules completely out of the social picture, what would happen? Would it render utter mayhem in the streets? Would the sky crack open and acid-baked space lizards rain down upon us? Would all men’s wives paint their power tools the colors of the rainbow? And all women’s husbands paint their toenails dark blue? Kinda’ doubt it! We don’t need no stinking gender rules. We need an open dialog, open minds.

Since this is a marketing blog…
It is almost always a good idea to break social norms and take calculated risks in marketing. The appropriateness debate has less to do with guidelines and more to do with being honest and authentic, and discarding any false sense of how things are “supposed to be.” If someone disagrees, so what? Let them eat toenails. Keep the customer in mind, be true to your brand, create and spread authenticity, and you will inevitably connect.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

Thank you! This is going to feel good.

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