Lululemon’s marketing team has long delighted in fanning the flames of controversy. Their latest effort depicts free shopping bags emblazoned with the Sanskrit Yama (restraint) of “Brahmacharya,” with the letters comprised of deliberately provocative images: Cigarettes, donuts, hypodermic needles, Cheetos, alcohol, and condoms, to name a few. Previous Lulu bags have depicted slogans such as “Who is John Galt?” (a sharky, capitalist reference to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged) and hidden messages that equate the addictive high of drugs and orgasm to vigorous exercise.
Customer responses to Lulu around the bag have varied. Many expressed dismay at the adult nature of the images; some shared the bags with their children before realizing their content. Others express apathy, observing that “it’s just a bag,” or that Lulu’s intention was to “start a conversation” and people should just “move on” and “get over it.”
Is it “just a bag,” a collective Rorschach upon which we project ourselves? What if, regardless of Lulu’s intentions, such imagery carries the power to influence behavior? And can we divorce the intention of a corporation in designing their ad campaigns from the perceptions of those taking it in? In other words, is an image ever just an image, or should there be stewardship and responsibility on the part of companies over the content they disseminate?
Images are powerful. Deliberately provocative ad campaigns are a mainstay marketing strategy; such campaigns go viral, exponentiating a company’s visibility. When watchdogs call out such companies on their tactics—for instance, images of dead women to sell handbags—those speaking out are portrayed as uptight and overly concerned. After all, “it’s just an image.” In the myth of limitless American agency, we are 100%, all the time, able to slough off the effects of such images on our psyche. Unconscious influences? Nonsense!
In reality, a multitude of research studies demonstrate the subconscious influence that images, scents, and sounds exert on behavior. Ayurveda, yoga, and meditative lineages have conceptualized this for millennia, positing that the microcosm of the self is a reflection and embodiment of environmental stimuli (among other factors). The resulting internalization of samskara consequently frames our experience in ways largely unavailable to our default consciousness.
Bags depicting hypodermic needles, cigarettes, and alcohol are inappropriate for the under-18 crowd, particularly when representing a cult label such as Lululemon. Claiming that they aren’t might reinforce your hipster identity, beliefs in absolute agency, and Lulu’s rampant objectivism, but does nothing to change the reality that images matter. For adults, what may inspire one person to abstain, when seeing that cigarette or alcohol bottle, may prove another person’s trigger. Cigarette and alcohol companies face significant marketing restrictions in many settings because of the demonstrated linkages between marketing and consumption. So why then is it hip to place these on a bag for Lululemon, an activewear company that is purportedly a bully pulpit for green ethics and conscious lifestyles?
What are your thoughts on the use of such imagery to market yoga apparel?