In this episode, the guys discuss how BIC pens tried to differentiate themselves by launching pens specifically for women. This landed them in some hot water, we take a look at why this happened. Nico fires shots at Chad and Chad impresses us with his knowledge of pens.  

Let’s go back in time and look at the history of the BIC pen company. 

Often brands will try to do something new and exciting to differentiate themselves. And maybe just as often that turns out badly for them.

In 1944, near the end of WWII, French entrepreneur Marcel Bich bought a factory in a suburb south of Paris, and started the company that would become Société Bic. The BIC pen was introduced in December of 1950 – and introduced to the American market in 1959. 

Originally priced at 29 cents (the equivalent of $2.54 in today’s dollars), the company’s slogan was “writes first time, every time.” The inexpensive BIC ballpoint pen with the transparent body (known elsewhere in the world as “BiC Cristal”), is the best selling pen in the world. In 1961 BIC introduced the BIC Orange pen – featuring a fine 0.8mm point, and an orange barrel instead of the translucent “Cristal.” In 1965 the French ministry of education approved the BIC Cristal for use in all French classrooms. In 2006 BIC sold its 100 BILLIONth pen.

Bich was always a believer in strong advertising. In 1952 he hired poster designer Raymond Savignac to create ads, and subsequently won the French “Oscar de la publicité” award for excellence in advertising. In 1953 Ad executive Pierre Guichenne advised Bich to shorten his family name to Bic so the brand name would be memorable, and would translate globally. Early BIC ads referred to the BIC Cristal as the “Atomic pen” And the Ballpoint really drove the shift from fountain pens to ballpoint pens in the late 20th century. 

Fast forward 60 years. In 2011, BIC decided to launch a product line specifically targeted at Women. They called it “BIC For Her.” The campaign attempted to speak to individual expression – re-styling existing pens (largely in pastel colors), and with packaging and ads that touted “BIC for Her – Always the perfect accessory.” Campaign materials highlighted: “BIC for Her pens and pencils allow you to add a touch of personality and a pop of color to your day with beautifully smooth writing and bold trendy designs.” The pens were described in the product descriptions as being “designed to fit comfortably in a woman’s hand” with an “attractive barrel design available in pink and purple”

Yes. Really. 

Jezebel’s masthead tagline is “A Supposedly Feminist Website,” and their always snarky take on feminism found the perfect target in BIC. The article, titled “BIC For Her: Finally A Pen Ladies Can Use,” included such pearls as: “Oh thank the heavens above! My feeble, female hands were just a-strugglin’ with those bulky man pens.” And perhaps most visibly – comedian and TV talk show host Ellen Degeneres picked it up. She savaged the product in her monologue. Listen to some quotes here. Here is an example of another offensive BIC ad used for Women’s Day. After yet another round of backlash, they decided to pull the ad, but never released an apology.

As is often the case when a brand makes a huge misstep like this, a chorus of voices cried out “How could they have let this happen?”  One writer provided some perspective in an article for Forbes entitled “BIC For Her – What they were actually thinking, as told by a man who worked on Tampons.” Now, aside from the troubling fact that this article amounts to further man-splaining – with David Vinjamuri explaining to us all how this could happen,  including lines like: “I am uniquely qualified to comment on this as a former brand manager who worked on feminine hygiene products.“ But he does couch his comments as having been “personally responsible for some awful, painful advertising.” 

Maura Judkis, of the Washington Post pointed out that if BIC had put out the same pens, and not named them “for her”, then none of this would have happened, and that the mistake was not in trying to make something for women, but in pandering to them in the marketing. And maybe that’s the big takeaway from this. We’ve done episodes on sexist campaigns before, such as Episode 10 on the creepy Peloton Christmas commercial. With so many of these products or ads, the entire issue could have been avoided if they’d simply asked their consumer, and taken the idea out to the street to see how people reacted. 

The guys end off the show by discussing how important it is to test your messaging. We can all get caught in a vacuum, or a cycle of confirmation bias. (expand on what confirmation bias is in psychology and how it works.) Even the most diverse of groups is capable of forming its own language and biases. Talk about how you can design message testing to root out confirmation bias

Enjoy the show!

We speak about:

  • [00:20] Who invented the first pen
  • [06:00] The history of BIC pens
  • [08:30] BIC advertising
  • [09:30] BIC for her
  • [10:40] Backlash on BIC for her
  • [16:30] How could they let this happen
  • [19:40] How could this have been avoided?



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