Starbucks’s red Christmas cups made national news this season. People complained that their plain red design was a symbol of the culture “war on Christmas” in the public sphere. Donald Trump even suggested boycotting Starbucks because of its choice in holiday design. And while this became a national controversy, there seemed to be less national or campus outrage in response to a Bloomingdale’s advertisement that insinuated rape. I don’t understand how the first caused so much anger and the second didn’t.
For those who haven’t seen the ad, it shows a man leering at a woman who is smiling and looking away with the words “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.” It’s undeniably “date-rapey;” the words clearly indicate drugging the woman and the image implies some sort of resulting sexual encounter.
I know I said that I don’t understand the difference in outrage, but I guess I’m not actually surprised by the ad or the lack of scandal it caused. Our acceptance of these attitudes is nothing new. It’s both a contributing factor and product of rape culture.
I suppose the ad is intended to sell clothing, but what it is really doing is selling the acceptance of rape culture in society. This ad passed through numerous levels of people and departments for approval before it was printed—people brainstormed the idea, modeled for the ad and created and edited it. The fact that no one flagged this ad as possibly being offensive is one piece of evidence of the prevalence of rape culture.
Bloomingdale’s did issue a sort of apology, but it was qualified. “In reflection of recent feedback, the copy we used in our recent catalog was inappropriate and in poor taste,” they acknowledged, implying that if they hadn’t received any negative feedback, it wouldn’t have been “inappropriate” or “in poor taste.”
Moreover, most of the news articles covering the story refused to outright declare the ad as problematic. Like Bloomingdale’s, these outlets qualified the ad in ways they don’t do for other actions society deems problematic. Fortune described the ad as “seen as encouraging date rape” in its headline, and NBC said the image “seemingly implies date rape.” The fact that society won’t simply condemn this ad as encouraging date rape is a sign of a culture where we’re reluctant as a society to believe allegations of sexual assault. What else is spiking your friend’s eggnog when she’s not looking supposed to mean?
Rape culture is one that allows these sorts of ads to become published and widely circulated, and then a half-hearted apology creates even more publicity for the abhorrent concept. So that now the result is that suggesting spiking some woman’s drink is seen as flirty and funny — promoting a business — and not a crime. Rape culture is how newspapers are allowed to write unclear headlines that obfuscate whether or not an ad is over the line of acceptability.
The Washington Post did a bit better in covering this story; they provided more context, describing the ad in light of rape culture in general. The article mentioned rape statistics, recent laws like California’s affirmative consent rules, and compared this story to the controversial, “rapey” Bud Light label, on which the tagline “removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary” was printed on bottles as part of their #UpForWhatever campaign. The Post highlighted how, unlike Anheuser-Busch’s lack of female employees, “Nearly three-quarters of managers across Macy’s Inc., its [Bloomingdale’s] parent company, are women.” This reality shows how everyone, men and women, can come to accept rape culture.
There are other examples of the glamorization of sexual violence in our use of language, jokes and objectifications. I could list statistics about rape in the world, in the United States or just here on campus. But instead I’d like to challenge everyone to simply think a bit more about how we live in a culture where ads like this one are created and not challenged. Think about the effects this culture has on our society, especially our community here on campus. Be aware of examples and do not be afraid to challenge them. Challenge them so we can better create a safe environment for everyone on campus.
Marni Morse is a politics major from Washington, D.C. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.