Workplace Fairness: Hot or Not?

It is the oldest adage in advertising: sex sells. But when does selling products with sex go too far?

In late August, LUSH Cosmetics led a protest against environmentally damaging product packaging by encouraging shoppers to go “naked” by purchasing products free of packaging. While this is a cute concept for a company whose products traditionally lack the common saran wrap sequence seen with other bath and beauty wares – the company also asked their employees to get naked to promote the cause.

While LUSH makes a compelling case against excess packaging – it contributes to two percent of overall greenhouse gases, plastic uses eight percent of the world’s oil resources, the U.S. consumes 79.6 million tons of packaging each year (over half of which still ends up in landfills) – the company crossed the line when it asked workers to educate others by eliminating their clothing.

The campaign may have made headlines, but did it really advance LUSH’s bottom line?

Another example of a company who got a little overzealous with image based marketing is Abercrombie & Fitch, who decided to promote employees based on their looks.

This story describes how a college student was pulled from a sales position of a Dallas Abercrombie & Fitch store, shoved to the backroom to fold clothes because she received a zero ranking on the district manager’s monthly audit report, which included the question, “Do all female models currently working have beautiful faces?”

According to the story, there were two choices – a ZERO or a FIVE (with the higher number signifying an approval rating for the “models,” which is an Abercrombie & Fitch term for sales representatives). Who knew that one had to participate in a “hot or not” contest just to earn a paycheck? Apparently, it’s part of the Abercrombie & Fitch business plan.

Whether it is discriminating against “ugly” people or selling soap without your skivvies – employers should understand all of the above could violate Equal Employment Opportunity laws.

While I do subscribe to the idea that sex can sell – there is no room within marketing tactics to allow employers to discriminate based on looks.

As someone who grew up with a father who was physically disabled, I learned at a young age that your image can mean a lot. My parents never allowed me to be so naive to think that I wasn’t going to be judged me based on how I looked – they had experience with many first hand misjudgments based on physical appearance. And as a result of being judged by their appearance, my father, in particular, always suggested that I look my best, stay healthy and dress appropriately for every occasion. I always keep his experience in mind when I hear people say that it doesn’t matter what you look like – often, it does. But, when employers make superficial requirements in order to earn paycheck, they walk the fine line between judgmental and breaking the law.

Thus, while it is one thing to understand how to market a product for profit – overselling the “sex” factor can lead to a formalized discrimination claim and probably won’t advance a bottom line or brand loyalty in the long run.

About the Author: Jen Nedeau is the Women’s Rights blogger for, a new blogger network of progressive causes that will be launching in mid-September 2008. Jen grew up in San Francisco, but left the West Coast to attend The George Washington University, where she obtained a B.A. in Journalism. She once pursued a career in political journalism where she wrote for the and, but now works in marketing. She is a member of Women in Politics and Technology and Women Who Tech, in addition to being on the DC Advisory Board for the New Leaders Council. She currently resides in Washington, DC.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.