Symbols and Mail Order Merchandising

Symbols and Mail Order Merchandising

Randall Williams

Vol. 11, No. 2, 1989, pp. 12, 14-17

Obsessions are never simple, and they usually lead to suffering. I, for instance, am almost reduced to going barefoot, my shirts are frayed at the collar and cuff, and I’m only thankful it was a mild winter for I badly needed a new jacket.

In my attire, you see, I have fallen victim to an obsession; for many months now I have been unable to order clothing from Land’s End, a mail-order company based in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, that previously was my favorite place to shop.

If you have a few minutes, I will share my sad story.

Land’s End sells well-made, sturdy, reasonably priced, low-key clothing. I’m a low-key guy; I silently cheered when Land’s End made a point of having no horses, alligators or other animals on their shirts. At one time Land’s End must have been a small company, though I saw a chart recently that put them sixth among U.S. mail order companies, with 1985 sales of $227 million. When I first saw and ordered from them years ago they at least gave the impression of smallness, and their catalogs were informative but nowhere near as slick as the four-color 150-pagers that now arrive with each new season.

Bear with me. The catalog is the point of this story.

Over the years I have watched that catalog evolve. I don’t have any old copies to prove it, but I think they used to say that all the models in the catalogs were Land’s End employees. That was okay with me, even reassuring–I don’t look like a model myself. I would get the catalogs, and I would order a few things every now and then. I liked the merchandise, and I like ordering things by mail, probably because I grew up in the country and almost everything we had came from Sears and Roebuck or Speigel. In fact, when I was a child I used to get baby chickens from Sears and Roebuck, a hundred chirping chicks at the time, in a cardboard box delivered by our mailman. Also, ordering from Land’s End was easier than going to the mall–it wears me out to go to the mall, and there are practically no retail stores left in downtown Montgomery where I live.

For a long time, things were fine. But as the seasons came and went, that catalog began to grate on me.

The catalog that really set me off was Vol. 23, No. 2, dated February 1987. It arrived in mid-January. I can remember the date because it was right after a large mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, members of other assorted hate

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groups, and plain white folks attacked an event promoted as a brotherhood march in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. in Forsyth County, Georgia.

You may remember the incident. The small group of would-be marchers were removed for their own protection by law enforcement officers. Their attackers asserted their intention to keep Forsyth County all-white, as it virtually had been since 1912, when widespread racial violence in the aftermath of a rape-murder literally drove black citizens from their homes and from the county.

Signs at the Edge of Town

In the years since, Forsyth, just forty miles from downtown Atlanta, had been one of those Southern locales which boasted signs saying, “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in ____ County.” We’ve all seen the signs, heard the stories, laughed or cringed, depending on our view or our color. Of course, that was twenty years ago. Now Forsyth has lost much of its rural feel and is growing fast because many people, white people, don’t mind working in black-majority Atlanta but prefer to live farther out, in suburbs which are said to resist plans for rapid transit because of fears of making access too easy for black criminals.

Two weeks and a media blitz after the first march, there was a second march. An estimated twenty thousand people from all over the United States marched to make a statement against the latest display of raw bigotry in one little backwater of America. Gradually the situation eased, the task forces wrote their reports, the reporters went home. To this day there are no blacks living in Forsyth County.

It was against this backdrop that the February 1987 issue of the Land’s End catalog arrived on my desk, and that I grasped what had been irritating me about the excellent work done by Al Shackleford.

Al is the copy director for Land’s End advertising and he has the hands-on responsibility for the catalogs. I know this because I called Land’s End one day and his was the voice that finally got on the line. Al sounded like a good person, and it’s obvious that he does good work.

But, no matter how good he is, if he had told me in advance what he was going to do in the February 1987 catalog, I would have laughed in his face and told him it was impossible.

I would have been wrong.

A few years ago Land’s End began using documentary photography to tell stories about some aspect of their products: hand shoemaking in New England, wool gathering in the British Isles, and such. For the February 1987 issue, a first-rate photographer named Archie Lieberman was commissioned to do a photo essay on U.S. cotton production, to make a point about the 100 percent cotton clothing sold by Land’s End.

A Turn in the South

Lieberman traveled through California, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia, and his pictures of workers in the fields, gins, and mills are gorgeous and evocative.

Of the twenty-nine people in his essay, there isn’t a black face among them–one Native American and two Hispanics from Arizona, but no blacks. And as I rapidly thumbed through the rest of the catalog, I saw consciously what I had been realizing all along, that of the hundreds of models in the Land’s End catalog, every single one was WASP.

Seeing those photos just a few hours after reading about an attack on a brotherhood march, I had to ask, what is the difference between the view of America held by a rock-throwing mob in Cumming, Georgia, and the view held by a huge retailer with offices in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, and Chicago? Not much, obviously.

What had been bothering me about Land’s End was its aggressively white image of America. Of course we are talking about marketing, meant to sell a particular line of products to a particular audience. But I don’t dress that differently from black men of my age and occupation–or from Hispanics or Asians who live where I do, shop where I do, play and work where I do. I couldn’t believe that a company like Land’s End would be opposed to selling its goods to non-whites. [For additional discussion of media’ marketing stereotypes, see Southern Changes, July 1979.]

I quit ordering from Land’s End, but I continued to get the catalogs.

By now, my obsession was interfering with my work. No matter what kind of deadline I was under, as soon as the mail brought a new catalog, I ripped through it looking for non-white faces. Eventually a couple of Asian child models appeared in the back pages, but this only intensified my

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One day I dialed Land’s End.

When I got Al on the phone, I introduced myself and said:

“…so I decided what the hell, I’d just pick up the phone and call and ask. I’m just curious to know whether it’s editorial policy or just coincidence or what, that essentially there is nobody in your catalog except white folks.”

There was a short pause, and then Al replied:

“Yeah. It’s not really editorial policy, Randall. It’s something we are aware of and we are working to correct. About the only thing, we have had Hispanic, Oriental, we’ve had kind of different ethnic groups represented in sort of an editorial context. In that sense, it’s not–that’s kind of a hard question to answer, but it’s not, you know, we realize that we are pretty, you know, about 99 percent Caucasian catalog. Let’s put it that way. And we are going to correct that.”

“Do you have any black customers?”

“Oh, I’m sure we do. It’s hard to say how many, but I know we’ve gotten–we just got a letter from a black family in California, pretty much, you know, kind of asking the same question you are asking and so I have no way of knowing how many black customers we have, but I’m sure we do have black customers. And I realize that if you are a black Land’s End customer and you get the catalog, you’re probably rightfully offended by the lily-whiteness of the catalog.”

Then I explained to Al how I had gotten his cotton photo essay right after the Forsyth incident:

“You know, I’m from here and grew up here and my people raised cotton and stuff like that and I just would have thought that it was pretty much impossible to do a piece on cotton production in the South without any black people in that piece. And yet, ya’ll managed to do it. Do ya’ll discuss this kind of thing within your company?”

“We do. I don’t really know what to tell you because it’s like a real sore point with a lot of us. Usually, when I get a call like this I would just refer it to our P.R.–the guy that’s in charge of our P.R.”

What does he say?”

“I really don’t know, to tell you the truth. I don’t know what the standard Land’s End response to this is, but I don’t see how it could be a very good one.”

“Is there somebody in the company that if ya’ll were to do a feature with black faces in it, or if you had a black model come along, would they say no?”

“Well, I tell you, I don’t want to get into that, really. You know, there have been quite a few people that have raised this point with us.”

“Inside your company as well as without, I take it?”

“Yeah. Oh yeah. But, I mean, it’s a regular–we defi-

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nitely get feedback from our customers kind of wondering, talking about the same thing that you’re talking about. It’s just an area that we realize that, or at least most of us realize, that we haven’t done a very good job. We are really looking forward to the day when you can get a Land’s End catalog and it represents America as it really is, rather than just like a select group of America.”

“Yeah, well, I have to say in ya’ll’s defense, ya’ll are not the only ones. I’ve become kind of obsessed by catalogs since I’ve been considering this.”

Yeah. Do you get the L.L. Bean catalog?”


“I think L.L. Bean’s argument is that they only use their own employees as models. Being in Maine where, you know, let’s face it, there’s probably about 99 percent white, so that’s kind of how they rationalize what they do. You know, if you—”

“How about ya’ll’s work force? I assume ya’ll, you know, given you are partly in Chicago—”

“You know, actually, yeah, we have black employees. Our main operation though is up in Dodgeville and I’d say that’s probably 95 percent of the company is up there.”

“Is that mostly white up there?”

“Yeah. Mostly white. Rural farm country.”

“If I wanted to pursue this a little further, who would I ask for?”

“Probably the guy to talk to is our vice president of public relations, whose name is Terry Wilson.”

So Al and I said goodbye, and I called Wilson, introduced myself, and explained that I had already talked to Al and why.

“Well, let me try to be as direct as you’ve been. It is not a conscious policy on our part. In fact, we do not have a policy about who appears or who doesn’t appear in a catalog. A lot of these people, as you probably have deduced as you’ve been looking at it and have been a customer for a number of years, are customers of ours, some of them are employees, some of them are models, obviously, but we try to, our main objective is to make them look like real people who buy and use the clothes. Now at the same time, and in addition to that, we sell and we solicit customers all across the board, regardless of background or color or ethnic persuasion, or religious persuasion. We send our catalog to anyone who wants it. We solicit business from everyone we can find who we think is a potential customer. I’m not going to try to deny that what you say is true. The only point I would like to make is that it has not been a conscious effort. I think you and others have pointed this out to us. It bothers some of our customers like you and we do pay attention to these comments. It’s something we are looking into and that’s about all I can tell you at this point.”

“…What do ya’ll do when yell get people who comment like this?”

“Well, we monitor all the comments that we do receive from customers–positive and negative–and try to direct them to the people in the company whose area of responsibility the comments relate to, in this case, primarily the people who select the individuals who model the clothes in the catalog.”

“Do you think it’s a problem? What kind of an image do you think it presents in terms of what this country is supposed to be about and so forth for ya’ll to have a catalog like that? Now I’m not suggesting ya’ll are the only ones, mind you. I’m not saying that.”

Frankly, I don’t know whether we are or not. I can tell you that’s not the way we look at the catalog, either ours or anyone else’s. We haven’t and I don’t think we will start to count people who are so-called party poops. I get the same comments from the handicapped. I get the same comments from racial groups now and then. As I say, we are certainly out encouraging and soliciting business from anybody we think we can attract as a customer, regardless of who they are, where they are, or what color they are. It’s a marketing question as much as anything else and it’s something we are going to have to deal with.”

“Do you think you have customers that would be offended if you had black models?”

“Oh, I don’t think any more than are offended that we don’t. In fact, as I say, we do not have a policy about who’s in the catalog and who isn’t. We don’t select our models because of color or minority question. We select them for a number of other reasons which may or may not be valid, depending on the eyes of the individual who is in your shoes, the customer. We are trying to market our clothes as well as we can to as broad a group as we can and that includes blacks and [unintelligible], and handicapped and everybody else who can wear them. We make clothes to fit people, not their colors. All I can tell you is about that. At the same time, you are not the first person who has commented on the situation…”

Comments from Customers

“About when did ya’ll start getting comments like this?”

“Oh, gee, that I can’t honestly tell you. I haven’t been with the company that long to go back in history, but there are a few every now and then and I suppose there probably have been. Although I can’t say for sure.”

“But it’s not like these comments like mine just started during the last six weeks or something?”


“And yet, up to this time, despite these comments, there have been no–you know, the catalogs haven’t changed, because I’ve been consciously paying attention. I guess I was unconsciously mindful of it for some time, but I’ve been consciously paying attention to it for two years now.”

“Again, I don’t argue with what you say, but at the same time we receive a large number of comments on a large number of subjects and we try to, as I said, evaluate each one in terms of what’s best for the business and what’s best in terms of trying to attract as many customers as we can. I get comments all the way from ‘why don’t you sell larger sizes,’ ‘why don’t you sell petites,’ and they run all over the lot so I assure you we pay attention to those. I don’t want to start repeating myself. That’s where we are.”

I didn’t want Terry to repeat himself, either, so I gave him my Forsyth County/Land’s End comparison and asked whether he saw the connection.

“I’m not that familiar with the situation that you mentioned, but I don’t know whether they are totally analogous because we are not out running people out of communities where they have a perfect right to go or we are not running them out of our property or burning crosses. We are not

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overtly endeavoring to do harm to people psychologically or .. physically. We are trying to simply present a line of clothing the best way we know how. The only thing I can fall back on is we would welcome as many minority customers as we could get.”

“Right, but you are not ready to put them in the catalog.”

“Well, you will have to draw your own conclusions about that, obviously. I think we have been making a little bit of progress. There have been, in the last few issues, a couple of minorities.”

“There appear to be two Oriental children in this issue, for example.”

“Yeah. So progress does not always come over night. I understand your concern. I know where you are coming from, and I appreciate your calling it to our attention. Ill make sure it will be discussed.”

I assured Terry I would try to help him, and for the past few months that was the end of it.

Yesterday, I got a new Land’s End catalog, Vol. 25, No. 3, March 1989. On page 147 there’s an Asian child. The same child is also on pages 146,143 and 139.

And…guess what. There, on page, 92, big as life, is an entire black family from Queens, N.Y., with a nice little story about them.

Well, it’s a start, Al and Terry.

I only wish that–given the unfortunate circumstance of blacks in Forsyth County being forced to leave their homes in 1912 and the historical and contemporary rhetoric by white supremacists who want to send blacks and (recent) immigrants “back to where they came from”-that you hadn’t used your first black models to illustrate a feature on luggage.

Randall Williams is the managing editor of the Southern Regional Council’s publications, including Southern Changes. From 1981-85, he was the director of the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a tenure which contributed to an obsession with racial images already well-defined by living in rural Alabama for most of his life.