Lululemon’s Toxic Mix Of Commerce And Ideology
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 company’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 Rand’s ideology of selfish rationality: “Who is John Galt” (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 “quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness.”
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, Jack Wolfskin Outlet even for a Canadian company. And even in our horribly polarized country, short of a well thought out boycott, there’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 we’re not stupid. We know what it means to have “Who is John Galt” inscribed on a shoulder bag.
First, “John Galt” 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 Ryan’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 “John Galt” 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 Rand’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: Rand’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 there’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 one’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 you’re on the right and think I’m making a big deal out of nothing, let me ask how you would feel if Brooks Brothers or Wal Mart started putting Che’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 we’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 can’t undo what’s been done and you are motivated to reduce the conflict. Therefore, the only option open is changing the opinion. Applied to Lululemon’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 run Jack Wolfskin Outlet ning 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.
Thanks for the comment ra5631. I don’t think the issue is just liberal vs. conservative. I’d like to think that if, oh idk, BMW started to brand it Jack Wolfskin Outlet self as “the car for the 99%” I’d have a similar reaction. Is it really good business to alienate a significant chunk of one’s customer base. I know our polarized politics makes conversation difficult (sometimes impossible). But regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, or even walks about, I still think a clothing company should keep their politics out of our pants.
Welcome Kevin . conflating of Objectivism with the Tea Party would indeed be ridiculous. Rand was vehemently opposed to the irrationality of all religion and is fundamentally inconsistent with TP social conservatism. But Rand has been appropriated by many in the movement to the point that phrases like “Who is John Galt” has become emblematic.
For behavioral science demonstations that economic decisions are NOT based in a virtue of rational self interest I’d suggest starting with Kahneman’s behavioral economics (haven’t started his new book but hope to) or Robert Trivers new book on self deception (which I have started and it’s great). Also, Trivers classic 1971 paper and all the research that followed on reciprocal altruism is a must for putting selfishness in it’s appropriate empirical place.
And good luck with your investments!
Todd thanks for your article.
I’ll say upfront that I’m an Ayn Rand fan girl. I finished Atlas Shrugged earlier this year (without knowing anything about the book or Ayn Rand) and it struck a chord like nothing I’ve read so far.
I took the same message out of the book as apparently Lululemon did on their bags: I read it to be a lesson on not settling for medi Jack Wolfskin Outlet ocrity and pushing for greatness. At the risk of sounding pathetically melodramatic, the book single handedly changed the way I looked at my life and has inspired some pretty significant change, for the better, I think.
Since finishing the book, I’ve been actively seeking out Atlas Shrugged criticism. I’m genuinely curious as to what “the other side” thinks. Yours is one of the few critiques I’ve encountered that is well thought out, well researched and well phrased. It’s always refreshing to find a political discussion that is truly intended as an open dialogue, and not merely a soap box disguised as “discussion.”
That being said, I do have a clarification question about the main message of your article here:
Is your issue with the lululemon situation solely the worrisome mix of politics/ideology and commerce? If lululemon had put a more left leaning message (say a Che Guevara image, in keeping with your example) on the bag, would you still have taken the merchandise back and written an article entitled “Occupy Your Yoga Pants: Lululemon’s Toxic Mix Of Commerce And Ideology”?
Or is your issue with the situation more specific to the specific ideology in question?
Which bothers you more, the fact that a retailer would put ANY ideological leanings on a shopping bag, or the fact that you were carrying a shopping bag that conveyed support for an idea you fundamentally disagreed with?
I’ve read numerous articles on this lululemon/”who is john galt” controversy, and everything I’ve read so far seems to take issue with the fact that Ayn Rand’s objectivisim is inherently contradictory to the values behind yoga.
Yours is the first critique I’ve read to take the argument that ideology doesn’t belong on shopping bags PERIOD, although you do have a fair bit of anti Ayn Rand messages thrown in (albeit respectfully done), so I’m wondering what your main “thesis” is, so to speak.
Sorry for the rambling comment I’d love to hear more from you on this.
Thanks Lauren, and kudos to you for a terrific thought (and conversation) provoking comment. I’ve got a few comments in reply.
First, I’m glad you were able to use the ideas in Rand’s novel for your own personal growth. I know many who have. And your active search for criticism and desire to learn what others thinks speaks to a habit of mind I applaud (literally, I’m actually clapping). Can I suggest you take a look at “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right” by Jennifer Burns which is an excellent, biography.
Burns provides a context for understanding that what Rand offers is a capitalist utopian ideal, a mid centruy counter weight to communist utopian ideals. Unfortunately, research since she wrote Atlas Shrugged shows that her ideal is poorly connected to actual human nature. That is not to minimize the value of the ideal for personal growth for those for whom the ideal resonates. However, as I get older and see more and more damage done by ideologies, I get more and more wary of all of them. And when we move from our own personal concerns to being participants in a capitalist economy relying on such ideals and myths is, to my mind, horrifically dangerous. Another book really worth reading that shows how far actual human nature is from Rand’s vision is a new one by fellow Forbes Contributor David DiSalvo: “What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite.”