The free magazine was meant as a gift from Lands’ End - the retailer known for its conservative, sturdy clothing - to its most valued customers.
But when the July issue of GQ landed in mailboxes across the country, the cover model was not wearing a monogrammed oxford or polar fleece. Instead, she was topless except for a strategically placed white flower lei. And some of the company’s shoppers were none too pleased.
“My 14-year-old son brought in the mail today & was quite disturbed & fascinated by a ‘gift’ Lands’ End sent us - a copy of GQ magazine with an absolutely OBSCENE cover!!!,” wrote one mother on the company’s Facebook page, which filled up with dozens of complaints. “I am appalled that Lands’ End - which I have always thought of as a ‘wholesome,’ family-oriented company - would be the one to expose my son to pornography!”
Another said: “We received your ‘Lands’ End Bonus’ of GQ magazine this weekend, and we are absolutely horrified. How can buying something as family friendly as school uniforms lead to soft porn in the mailbox? I’m thankful my son did not bring in the mail.”
Snapped another, “I ordered Christian private school children’s uniforms from your company and you sold my home address to a magazine company that peddles in soft porn for men???.”
The GQ promotion was part of a yearlong deal that Lands’ End, based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, had struck with the magazine’s New York publisher, Condé Nast. The idea was to reward its best customers with magazines “highlighting fashion and lifestyle topics.” Previously, as part of the arrangement, the company had sent readers copies of other popular magazines like Self, Vogue and Glamour.
Such partnerships between retailers and magazines are hardly new, but have grown in recent years as magazines have been increasingly eager to find new distribution channels for their product in hopes of gaining new subscribers as fewer people buy print magazines.
But in this case, the promotion backfired, with GQ’s racy cover of model and actress Emily Ratajkowski offending some of Lands’ End’s customers. By Wednesday, the negative reaction had grown so strong that the retailer issued a mea culpa to its shoppers.
“I would like to start by extending my most sincere apologies,” Edgar Huber, the chief executive of Lands’ End, wrote in an email. “We are aware that you have received or will be receiving shortly the July issue of GQ magazine with a suggestive cover.”
Huber explained that GQ, a men’s magazine, was included as part of the subscription offer “since we did not want to exclude our male customers.” He also wrote, in bold letters, “There are simply no excuses; this was a mistake.”
Condé Nast has had a long relationship with advertisers who want to give their consumers gift subscriptions. “Condé Nast has partnerships with many retailers that involve the gift of a subscription with purchase of their product,” said Patricia Rockenwagner, a Condé Nast spokeswoman. “How the programs are carried out and which of their customers receive subscriptions is entirely determined by them.”
To make amends, Lands’ End said in its apology that it had switched its customers’ names from the GQ subscription list to subscriptions to Condé Nast Traveler. (The most recent cover of Traveler features a staircase in San Pietro on the Aeolian island of Panarea.)
A giveaway gone awry is the least of the magazine industry’s problems. Circulation and newsstand sales have declined precipitously over the last decade. And to offset those declines, magazines are pushing into numerous new initiatives and partnerships.
For decades, Hearst Corp. has had ventures with television networks like HGTV Magazine and Food Network Magazine. Just this week, Condé Nast announced that it would work with an e-commerce platform called BeachMint to run Lucky Magazine and with Bravo on a new television series called “Best New Restaurant.”
While many of these partnerships exploit magazines’ brands to sell products - Better Homes and Gardens has a line of curtains and cookware at Wal-Mart, for example - some are an attempt to get their magazines into the hands of new customers and potential subscribers.
Lands’ End’s botched promotion comes months after Sears spun off the retailer into an independent publicly traded company. (Sears acquired Lands’ End in 2002 for $1.9 billion.) As part of an effort to keep its brand fresh, Lands’ End has added a touch more stylishness to its more traditional merchandise in hopes of attracting younger shoppers. Glossy fashion magazines would seem to align with that ambition.
And while GQ is a long-respected voice on men’s fashion and home to narrative journalism, the magazine’s image has evolved in recent years - especially its covers. Until recently, the covers rarely featured women, instead opting for portraits of celebrities like Muhammad Ali or Sean Connery. But now, scantily clad women - Jennifer Aniston, Kate Upton, Rihanna - are routinely featured on its covers. Ratajkowski first gained notice in the music video for Robin Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines”; in October, she will appear in the film adaptation of the novel “Gone Girl.”
Many angry customers wondered why Lands’ End was not aware of GQ’s risqué photos and provocative content. “In the future, we will work more closely to assess content to make sure it is aligned with our well-known, long-held company values and those of our customers,” said Michele Casper, a company spokeswoman.
Several customers were dissatisfied with Lands’ End’s apology.
“I think I was even more appalled at the excuse in the form of an apology that I was sent,” one woman wrote on the Facebook page. “That they meant it to be a gift to their male customers. That is absolutely disgusting and a major disrespect to your female customers. Those types of magazines are degrading and make women out to be objects. If that is the type of mindset your marketing has on women, then I think that person needs to be fired.”