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Reese Witherspoon wanted to give teachers free dresses. But no good deed goes unpunished.

When Reese Witherspoon’s fashion label announced it would be giving away free dresses to hard working American teachers, it sounded like a lovely thing to do.

A beautiful gesture from the Hollywood actress and mum-of-three to the millions of teachers putting their health at risk, to continue providing children with a place to learn amid this global pandemic.

On April 2, the Big Little Lies star’s label Draper James announced the ‘giveaway’, which Witherspoon “loved” the idea of, The New York Times reports.

WATCH: Here’s what celebrities are up to in COVID-19  lockdown. Post continues after video.

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“Dear Teachers: We want to say thank you,” the Instagram post read.

“During quarantine, we see you working harder than ever to educate our children. To show our gratitude, Draper James would like to give teachers a free dress.”

The post encouraged teachers to ‘apply’ for their free dress by completing a form, which involved submitting their work email address and a photo of their school ID.

“Know a teacher who deserves a pick-me-up? Forward this post or tag your favourite educator in comments! #DJLovesTeachers,” the caption read.

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It was a wonderful idea, until it wasn’t.

Sadly, what happened next was a perfect storm of events and errors that, together, ended up causing more harm than good.

The first thing that went wrong? A miscommunication. Even though the fashion label has an Instagram audience of over 700,000 and the backing of Witherspoon’s 24 million followers, the team of fewer than 30 employees said they simply weren’t expecting so many people to hear about the initiative, let alone apply.

“We felt like we moved too quickly and didn’t anticipate the volume of the response,” Marissa Cooley, the senior vice-president for brand marketing and creative at Draper James, told the Times.

“We were really overwhelmed. It was way more volume than the company had ever seen. We expected the single digit thousands.”

Thinking it’d be a small, grassroots kind of thing, Draper James mustn’t have thought they’d need to make it clear in the terms the giveaway was actually a competition, and they only had 250 dresses available to give away – the original Instagram post merely read ‘while stock lasts’.

Teachers were also instructed to ‘apply’ by filling out a form if they’d like to receive a dress, but the post caption stopped short of outlining it was a competition, which would have implied there’d be winners and, inevitably, losers. They’re only a few words, but they matter.

Less than 24 hours after Draper James posted the giveaway on Instagram, it was picked up by US morning shows Today Show and Good Morning America. ‘Reese Witherspoon gives free dresses to teachers!’ the headlines read. Immediately, the story exploded because Reese Witherspoon + struggling teachers = a viral moment.

 

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The Times reports there are more than three million public school teachers in the United States, and a large majority of them are women. Teachers began sharing the news amongst each other, tagging each other on Instagram hoping they’d receive a beautiful new dress. The application page crashed, and by the time Draper James closed it, more than one million teachers had applied.

The brand found themselves trying to stop their lifeboat from sinking, and having to decide who would sail with them to safety, who’d have to jump ship and who’d be left stranded in the water. Without a dress.

While 250 women were sent a lovely designer dress to wear to school, millions were left angry, wearing the same clothes they already own.

After Draper James notified everyone who’d applied of the situation, offering some 30 per cent discounts they could use in place of receiving a free dress, what started as a way for the brand to give back looked very much like a marketing ploy hooked off the pandemic.

Understandably, teachers who spent some of the little free time they do have filling out a detailed form thinking they’d receive a free dress from Reese Witherspoon are hurt. They feel like they were tricked by a Hollywood actress who has spent the better part of her career championing women.

Some are accusing the brand of using the charitable offer as way to add millions of emails to their email marketing lists in order to boost sales. Others cried #Covidwashing on Twitter, a hashtag calling out celebrities’ misguided attempts at helping people during this crisis.

Witherspoon herself hasn’t yet commented on what’s happened. This week also happens to be the week her new show Little Fires premiered with rave reviews.

In response to angry comments on Draper James’ last Instagram post, shared a week ago, the brand said, “The last thing we wanted was to disappoint or make anyone feel taken advantage of. Our intention was to shine a light on the hard work of teachers. We are working to expand this program and create more ways of supporting these professions”.

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We can’t know the honest truth of why the brand decided to launch this competition and what was said on the video call when they were coming up with the idea. What we can do is take the brand at their word and accept this for what it is – a very unfortunate lapse in judgement.

And as one teacher put it, “the intentions were good, but the execution was terrible. It’s a marketing 101 fail”.

The question remains: should we be outraged about this?

We all have the power to decide how we feel and respond to things, and in these uncertain times, there are so many things to feel outraged about.

Call me naive, but I’m not sure Reese Witherspoon and the staff she employs at her fashion label are among them.

Feature image: Getty.

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