Only A Cosmetic Apology? MAC’s Juarez Controversy & Fauxial Awareness

by cv harquail on July 23, 2010

There are apologies that are superficial and apologies that reflect genuine remorse.  There are apologies that demonstrate regret and apologies that initiate restitution.

And then, there is the apology that MAC Cosmetics has offered for its offensive Juarez Makeup Collection.

[Note, added later: Be *sure* to read the followup post:  MAC’s Apology for Juarez Makeup Line: Effective and Authentic]

I fear that MAC’s is only a cosmetic apology, one that fails to demonstrate an understanding of what went wrong, and fails to take real initiative to turn the situation towards something good.

MAC’s apology may represent fauxial awareness, not genuine social awareness.

A quick recap of the MAC – Rodarte – Juarez Situation:

201007230912.jpgMAC Cosmetics has teamed up with the tiny fashion house Rodarte to create and release a makeup collection to coordinate with Rodarte’s fall fashion line. Rodarte (otherwise known as the two Mulleavy Sisters) took their inspiration for this collection from the bleak physical landscape of the Mexican city of Juarez.

Interestingly, Juarez is not a town known for its physical beauty, but for its epic levels of misogynist violence against women.

How could any company considered to be socially aware do something so dumb?

To assess this, I’m looking not only at the way MAC has managed this Juarez situation, but also MAC’s larger history and reputation of corporate social awareness.

MAC Cosmetic’s Social Awareness

MAC has always been kind of a CSA darling in the fashion world. MAC was one of the first cosmetics companies to establish a recycling program (Back to M-A-C), to assure cruelty-free products, to openly embrace racial, age and gender diversity, and, it must be said, the first company to use African American drag queen as a spokesmodel.

MAC is probably best know for its pioneering role in supporting HIV/AIDS education and services. Support for HIV/AIDS programs was initiated by the company’s founders, and institutionalized in 1994, when the company established The M·A·C AIDS Fund, “the heart and soul of M·A·C Cosmetics. To date, MAC has raised $139 million (U.S.) exclusively through the sale of M·A·C’s VIVA GLAM lipstick and lipgloss, donating 100 percent of the sale price to fight HIV/AIDS.”

MAC has rightly earned tremendous goodwill for what is certainly an authentic commitment to HIV/AIDS. Now, though, I’m wondering if MAC has gotten perhaps too much credit for overall social awareness, and has been coasting on this positive reputation rather than remaining mindful of its relationship to social issues. I’m concerned that, MAC might have become, not socially aware, but fauxially aware.

Fauxial Awareness®

Faux-ial Awareness (fo-shall) is the social equivalent of greenwashing.

[Please note: in response to Stowe Boyd pointing out that this joke is easy to miss, let me be clear that I’m not actually trying to trademark the term. I would, though, like people to remember the concept and be aware when organizations engage in this kind of deception. Thanks @StoweBoyd for the heads up.  11.30.10]

Organizations are fauxially aware when they have superficial campaigns to address social issues but demonstrate in their behavior that they are totally blind to the complexities and realities of these issues.

If MAC were truly a socially aware company, they would not have made the mistake of naming a new makeup collection after the city where over 500 women have been murdered, the most violent city outside of a war zone. Somebody, somewhere in the organization, would have recognized that connecting beauty products to a town defined by violence was not hip, not cool, and beyond a bad idea. Somebody would have recognized how profoundly this choice would offend MAC’s core customers — women.

It may be that MAC’s attention to HIV/AIDS has kept it from paying attention to other social issues. Their lack of awareness may reflect an inability to extrapolate from one commitment an understanding that can be applied to recognize injustice in other social domains. If this were the case, then we could expect that MAC’s AIDS commitment has failed to generate a fundamental understanding within the company that could be applied to other situations. Maybe they can’t extend their consciousness in one area to consciousness in other areas.

(Note, other fashion companies like Kenneth Cole do maintain a broad and consistent social awareness and outreach effort.)

Maybe what it comes down to is something more deeply rooted in fashion as an industry. Fashion as an industry has long been based in violence against women. And if ‘violence’ is too strong a word for you (even if you include footbinding and corsets) then we can use oppression. Perhaps it is too difficult to disentangle specific examples of misogyny from the whole ensemble of oppressions of women, and address specific issues while keeping the fashion industry’s fantasies about itself alive. Maybe after blurring the line between beauty and conformity for so long, it’s just hard to see even something as blatant as 500+ femicides.

What does it say about MAC that they can be such a prominent supporter of AIDS activism, and be completely oblivious to the issues of women, particularly surrounding this hotspot? It’s not like the femicides in Juarez are some kind of secret.

Glossing over Femicide

MAC has an ongoing, designed in commitment to HIV. It has a consistent funding source, a related non-profit organization, an annual launch with associated PR, and systems around choosing a celebrity person and promoting that person’s involvement. This infrastructure represents an authentic commitment to the HIV issue by the company.

Contrast this with MAC’s offer to make up for this Juarez mistake– a one time contribution, changing the product names, and issuing an apology. Does that really reflect an understanding of what went wrong, and what should be changed?

On the plus side, MAC listened and responded. On the negative side, MAC hasn’t (yet) shown an understanding how how it let this happen, what that says about MAC as a company, and what MAC needs to learn.

I’m hoping that there will be more to this story, since it is only just now getting picked up by well-known blogs outside the world of fashion and in the marketing community. I’ll keep you posted if there is more news, and when I’m better able to wrap my mind abound the authenticity issues.

In the meantime, it’s worth reflecting on what it really takes for an organization to be socially aware.

As commenter Alex wrote in response to Temptalia’s great post:

“MAC has made a name for itself by catering to “All ages, all colors, all races.” Apparently this “inclusiveness” doesn’t extend to the brown women lost in Juarez.  Compassion is a wonderful quality… we are ugly without it. And no amount of makeup will cover up that kind of ugliness.”

Thanks to Brand Channel for bringing this issue to mainstream marketers’ attention, to ColorLines for showcasing this as an issue critical to racial justice, and to Temptalia for hosting a serious conversation among fashionistas about the issue.

See Also:
Brand Channel’s Abe Sauer: MAC and Rodarte Accept Name Blame
ColorLines: The Beauty Bloggers Who Blew MAC and Rodarte’s Juarez Cover
Temptalia: MAC Rodarte Collection for Fall 2010 + Official Statements
British Beauty Blogger: MAC, Rodarte and the Women of Juarez ( full of good links)

Image: Rodarte for MAC, from MAC


Tamsen McMahon July 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm

I’m fascinated and saddened by this story–and even more surprised that I haven’t heard about it until now. It’s interesting to note what kinds of bigotry get people riled up, and which are allowed to pass unnoticed.

While it is surprising on one level that MAC could misstep so horribly with one of their lines, I suspect it has as much to do with a cause marketing arm that’s somehow siloed from their product marketing arm as anything else. That’s no excuse of course–rather just the opposite. One would think that a company that’s stock in trade is socially aware cosmetics would not only be hyperattuned to issues surrounding women, but would be organized in such a way as to make sure that it’s socially aware actions in one part of the company informed all aspects of the company…and not be treated as a side project (albeit a heavily supported one, as is the case with their HIV efforts).

We can’t expect MAC to invest as heavily in all social causes as they do with HIV–it’s their right to choose their main cause and stick with it. But I agree that there is a presumption we consumers have about “cause aware” brands that leads us to think that they don’t pay attention to one cause to the exclusion of others. And, at the very least, they could, as you say, indicate how they’ll avoid future missteps.

It’s what you do that counts when it comes to establishing your brand in people’s heads, not what you say. And MAC’s actions, both in the original naming of the collection and in their rather feeble attempts to mend the situation, leave me wondering just how broadly felt their social consciousness actually is.

cv harquail July 28, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Hi Tamsen,

I’ve been thinking a lot about exactly that issue of breadth — the one that’s in that muddled paragraph, which you unpack so much more elegantly.

One concern is the effect of siloing– I don’t know how integrated the AIDS/HIV activity is throughout the company, so this could be one reason why consiousness isn’t ‘live’ in the product naming area.
Another aspect is active engagement — if there is a dedicated CSR-ish staff, meaning that there is not some kind of active engagement across areas and employees, the collective ‘organization’ may not have kept learning and kept socially conscious in that area.

And, it might be us in the audience– we might take too much for granted, make assumptions from the specific issue to social issues in general, or give them too much credit.

I’ve also been thinking about the relative complexity– I used to teach in Women’s Studies, so the Juarez situation is something I’d know about, but I’m wondering how widespread the awareness is across MACs customer base. The Juarez name problem does take more awareness to catch as an issue of ‘justice’ than your basic ‘contribution to an anti-marriage equality candidate’ debacle. And then, there is the general cultural reluctance to care about issues of women of color. It is very loaded.

I keep going back to the question of why no one brought it up during any meeting, and why it took more than two months from runway to product launch to get anyone’s attention. But/and, I’m really impressed by the feminism and the interest in justice I’ve seen on the beauty blogs.


Sham July 28, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I personally think that this was the best way for people around the world to find out about the true horrors of Juarez. I for a matter of fact had NEVER even heard about this tragedy. As I am a MAC makeup fan, I have now become aware and will no doubt let everyone in my circle of people know. Maybe MAC could have done a better job of bringing this out to the real world, i.e. by not naming the products with such specific terms but regardless of this, I think it will only help everyone understand and realise what the reality is in the bigger scheme of things.

cv harquail July 28, 2010 at 12:42 pm

Sham, I think this is the perfect case of what I call the ‘groped-for silver lining’… it’s amazing to read the comment strings on the beauty blogs where readers are educating each other on why “The Juarez Collection” was so wrong. MAC’s public apology and Rodarte’s admission that they were oblivious are good examples of taking reponsiblity…. but I still want to see more from them. I hope that the petition that is circulating gets heard too.

saytue saye January 7, 2011 at 12:55 am

Yes, I believe in order to name your products something it had to come from somewhere. In this case, they knew the history…..smh….”Money is the root of all evil.”
I’m actually doing a show on this…1/7/11 at 1am est…..I’ll see what others have to say as well.

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