Bearish on teddies

Lisa Hahn’s article this month on crafting a long-term PR campaign (“Beyond the press release,” page 32) probably wouldn’t have helped Vermont Teddy Bear Co. earlier this year. PR triage would have been more useful.

The manufacturer/marketer of teddy bears and other gifts came under attack for selling the Crazy for You Bear prior to Valentine’s Day. The lovelorn teddy was wrapped in a straitjacket and came complete with commitment papers.

Mental health advocates and Vermont’s governor protested the Shelburne, VT-based company’s apparent insensitivity. The Vermont Human Rights Commission executive director wrote a letter to Vermont Teddy Bear in January, urging it to withdraw the product: “Perhaps most disturbing to me is the apparent lack of understanding by your company of the real hurt and emotional turmoil your continued marketing of this stereotypical and stigmatizing product causes for those who have suffered from psychiatric conditions, along with their loved ones.” Vermont Teddy Bear CEO Elisabeth Robert even had to resign from the board of trustees of the state’s largest hospital.

The outcry continued after Vermont Teddy Bear agreed to withdraw the product from future promotions. Protestors wanted the company to stop selling the item pronto and to refuse to fulfill orders for the product.

Sure, protestors have the right to voice their opinions and to ask a company to halt production of something they believe is offensive (just as I have the right to say, “Folks, it’s just a teddy bear”). And Vermont Teddy Bear has the right to manufacture and market whatever teddies it sees fit. But a more empathetic reaction from the company might have helped smooth over the situation.

Around the same time of the teddy bear brouhaha, I received an e-mail from apparel cataloger Boden — or rather, from company founder Johnnie Boden, according to the “from” line: “I am writing to apologise. [Boden is a British company, hence the spelling.] We feature a T shirt in our new Mini Boden catalogue with an image of a toy gun (Sheriff T Shirt). Many of you have contacted us about this. I don’t want you to think we are an irresponsible organisation. I founded this company to create clothing ranges that captured a spirit of fun, honesty, individuality and family. We have made a mistake with this product and we feel stupid, especially me. Please accept my apologies.” The letter went on to state that the shirt was no longer available for sale in the U.S. and to thank customers for their feedback.

A Google news search for the Boden catalog didn’t turn up one article about the misstep. A Google news search for Vermont Teddy Bear turned up more than 600 articles about its controversy.

Then again, perhaps Vermont Teddy Bear played it smart: It sold out of Crazy for You Bears by Feb. 3.

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