Cosmetics Retailer Drops Campaign Against Undercover British Police

Posted June 8, 2018 5:56 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Visiting an outlet of the cosmetics retailer Lush is not for the faint of heart. Its stores are stocked with strongly scented ointments and brightly colored blocks of soap, and its advertisements are unapologetically strident when it comes to social issues.

Its new campaign in Britain, however, may have gone too far.

The company on Thursday took down storefront displays that had sparked controversy in recent days for being sharply critical of undercover police.

The posters and advertising alluded to public anger over the actions, over several years, of undercover detectives who used sexual relationships to infiltrate environmental and social justice advocacy groups. In 2015, the police formally apologized for the tactics.

One Lush shop, on Oxford Street in London’s commercial center, featured faux police tape with the words “Police have crossed the line” printed on it. Posters displayed a close-up of a man from the shoulders up, split down the middle with one half of him wearing a police uniform and the other a yellow T-shirt. Other signs read, “Spied on for taking a stand.”

The campaign drew criticism almost immediately after it started on June 1.

“Never thought I would see a mainstream British retailer running a public advertising campaign against our hardworking police,” Sajid Javid, the home secretary and the minister responsible for Britain’s police forces, tweeted. “This is not a responsible way to make a point.”

Some police officers took to social media to express dismay at the campaign, with one saying he was “heartbroken.”

Sara Thornton, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said in a statement that “while it may have been well intended, this campaign from Lush UK is both insulting and damaging to the tens of thousands of officers who place themselves in harm’s way to protect the public on a daily basis, and who have nothing at all to do with the undercover inquiry.”

Lush said it had suspended the campaign, originally intended to run three weeks, for the safety of its staff, and a spokesman pointed to a statement last Saturday in which Lush noted “intimidation of our shop staff from ex-police officers and unhelpful tweets from those in high office.”

The retailer, which has 930 stores around the world, said at the start of the campaign that it did not intend to criticize Britain’s police force as a whole or day-to-day police officers.

“It is about a controversial branch of political undercover policing that ran for many years before being exposed,” the company said in the statement.

Founded in 1995 by two entrepreneurs who had been suppliers to the Body Shop, another retailer with a history of activism, Lush markets products that do not undergo animal testing and that use fresh ingredients.

Its campaign was the latest example of increasing attempts by consumer brands to champion social causes. The effort, however, also illustrated the potential downside.

“If it doesn’t resonate, you put yourself at risk,” said Julio Hernandez, the global head of customer advisory at the professional services firm KPMG. “There’s a balance between how involved you want to be and how broad a reach you have to your customers.” Other companies have made similar missteps:

— Starbucks attracted derision in 2015 over its efforts to stimulate conversations about race relations by encouraging its baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups. Reaction ranged from video parodies to hostile online attacks.

— The skin-care brand Dove, which has built much of its marketing around “real beauty,” promoting women of different shapes and sizes, caused a swift outcry last year with a body wash advertisement in which a black woman removed her brown shirt to reveal a white woman in a light shirt underneath. The company quickly apologized.

— Pepsi also apologized last year after a commercial for its flagship soda borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics said it trivialized protests over the killings of black people by the police.