To give you some background to the brand in question, unless you follow some high-profile designers, you may not be aware of how the popularity of Aurifil has arisen, but Aurifil has quickly gathered a cult status, after being used by dozens of high profile quilters and designers (their piecing work and quilts hashtagged with Aurifil), which quickly trickled down to it becoming widely stocked by independent quilt shops worldwide. To me, this rise of Aurifil is largely attributable to one man - Aurifil's frontman, Alex Veronelli. For those not familiar with his online presence, Alex is charismatic, likable, charming and mildly flirtatious in an inoffensive way. In the predominantly female quilting community, his presence has seemed to seal the deal of making Aurifil's Italian thread a highly covetable item. I don't have a problem with this at all - we are all susceptible to presentation - I'd be the first to admit that when I buy something, I'm often buying into the whole lifestyle of what that product has been packaged to convey (my husband and I laughed over this when we realised we'd bought some dog treats for £5, largely because they had been placed in a small, recycled cardboard box, stickered with an attractive label and postured as organic and wholesome. Lucky Nell! I'm not sure whether she actually appreciated the difference though).
Before I detail what I've found troubling about Aurifil's recent marketing campaign, I feel I should preface this by saying that I've met Alex once in person, albeit very briefly, and he seemed to actually be very reserved and this is borne out by what others have said about him too - all who've come into contact with him seem to say that he's respectful, professional and also been hugely supportive of their work.
However, a few weeks ago, during the time that Quilt Market was being held in America (a trade only event where designers and manufacturers unveil their new lines to the industry media and shop owners), photos began popping up on the feed of Aurifil's PR woman, showing an ever-growing series of different high-profile women from within the quilting industry sitting on Alex Veronelli's lap, hashtagged with #aurigirl, collected over the course of a few days. After several photos in this vein, I unfollowed the woman who was posting them, as the whole thing felt a bit, for want of a better word, vomit-inducing. I couldn't quite understand what this particular marketing campaign was trying to say to me as a potential Aurifil user…other than that if I used Aurifil threads I could become defined by them and hashtag myself as an #aurigirl and aspire to sit on the knee of Alex Veronelli too… I like the threads and he seems like a very nice man, but as a grown-up woman living in 2014, neither of those things speak to me on a level that feels in line with how I wanted to be marketed to.
In the interests of giving a rounded view - there was one #auriboy and one fantastic photo of Angela Walters, where she'd clearly refused the request and said that he could sit on her knee instead if he wanted. Alex is sitting grinning, while Angela's arms are placed firmly behind her chair, rather than wrapped around him. Apparently all of these women were happy to take part and most look really quite happy and in the comments to Abby's post, some have said that they still feel completely happy with it. However, for me it's not really about that at all - it's more about what Aurifil are trying to say as a company and what their message is. I don't think there's anything wrong with a woman sitting on Alex Veronelli's knee at all if she's happy to do so…it's more how it looks when seen on mass with the hashtag #aurigirl applied to it - it begins to feel slightly misogynistic and like a collection of 'calendar girl' shots.
I do wonder how much of this is Alex being a good sport and playing along with the ideas that the Aurifil PR department are coming up with for him. Or, when surrounded by a sea of adoring women, whether he's lost sight of what he actually wants to be doing and is just trying to people-please and live up to the Italian stallion reputation that's previously worked so well for his company. Or maybe he's actually happy with this line of marketing…who knows.
Alex's Twitter presence has always been on the risqué side of things - when I first began following him on Twitter about three years ago I was bemused by the jokes that would randomly appear in his stream, until another quilter told me that she thought he consulted a joke book for these. Either way, they were fairly inoffensive and some of the ones that I saw actually made me laugh. However, I tend to use Instagram more than Twitter nowadays, and it seems the jokes now have a slightly more unpleasant feel to them. In her post, Abby sites several examples, but to give you a quick flavour, a recent joke that he posted was "Do you want to know the 'Victoria's Secret'? Their lingerie doesn't look the same on your girlfriend as it does on their models". For those who aren't aware of it, Victoria's Secret is an American lingerie chain. For anyone who remembers the overnight downfall of Gerald Ratner and his chain of jewellery shops in the 1990s, the first rule of business is not to insult your customers. With a list of predominantly female followers, is this really good PR to be posting jokes like this that are at the expense of everyday women?
I generally take the approach of, if I don't like something I ignore it or stop looking at it. However, when a company's whole marketing campaign seems to be based on things that have misogynistic overtones it feels bigger than that and it makes me feel that if no one joins Abby in saying 'hang on a moment - I'd really love you to market your threads to me in a different way' then nothing will change. I think their current marketing campaign currently makes a fool out of its customers.
When I was growing up, I'd always thought that things like this really didn't matter too much. I lived with lots of men at university and never once felt offended by their banter or conversation. In my life as an adult, I'd pretty much thought feminism in England was unnecessary, as the battle for equality here had already been fought and won a long time ago - the people I surround myself with like women and don't see them as anything other than equal. However, a few months ago, I watched a documentary called Blurred Lines, presented by Kirsty Wark. It was one of the most eye-opening things I've ever watched and it completely changed my perception of why saying the smaller things like this aren't okay is really important, even in England where we don't suffer the kinds of horrendous oppression that some other cultures do.
So, back to Aurifil, this isn't an attempt to vilify Alex or Aurifil. It's simply a public request for them to do things differently and make other people aware of what's going on, so that if you feel the same, you can ask for that too. In our age of social media, any mistakes that a company or person makes are painfully clear for all to see - which is quite difficult when we're all human and so do make mistakes. I really believe that it shouldn't be the (in my opinion) error of judgement that's the issue, it's how a company or person reacts to people questioning it that matters. I think that Alex is a brilliant and charismatic front-man for Aurifil, I just wish that they'd market their products to me as though I'm an intelligent consumer, rather than someone who will be swayed by photos of prominent women sitting on his knee with Alex in Father Christmas mode or invitations to catchphrase a man's crotch.
This isn't a request for people to boycott Aurifil. Their success has been backed up and largely facilitated by being stocked in independent quilting shops, most of which are run by independent businesswomen. If it's the thread that you'd buy anyway, by stopping buying it, quilt shop owners will be left with thread stock that they find difficult to sell. I'm imagining that they don't stock Aurifil on a sale or return basis, so that would seem a fairly awful consequence and isn't something I'd want to be implicated in.
To me, the best approach seems to be to politely ask Aurifil to change their marketing tack - whether that's through writing a blog post or messaging Alex on Twitter or writing to them directly. If enough people let them know that they'd prefer to be marketed to in a more respectful way, then hopefully they'll take that on board.
I'd love to know what you think,
UPDATED: Alex responded to me via Twitter this morning with the following comment: Loved your post and its clear storytelling, you're rightly pointing out suggestions that I will make treasure of. This evening, Abby Glassenberg wrote to let me know that Aurifil have now removed the offending photos. What a fantastic result - I'm so pleased.
Thanks so much to Abby for starting the conversation about something which many of us, including me, didn't have the confidence to begin despite feeling quietly offended. And thank you for taking the time to comment on both my and Abby's blogs - I really think your comments made a difference and brought about a speedier result than the lone voices of two women could have done. I'm also personally grateful as I'm not really an 'over the parapet type of person', so your support meant a lot - I'd been slightly afraid that this post could be met by deafening silence or worse, vitriol against me - it was a relief to find that these feelings resonated with you too and that you felt it was something worth discussing. Thank you. x