Why Simons’ love affair with art ended badly

—It may be that the Simons “All is Beauty” campaign was always going to face backlash, but Eric Blais has a few suggestions for what the retailer could have done differently—

Peter Simons is an art lover. He must be heartbroken today, since all signs are that his latest art project about beauty for the retail chain that bears his family name has been cancelled. I, for one, hope that this won’t end his love affair with art and culture. (*Read The Message‘s update story here.)

“It’s art. Our intent was to tell the story of her life.”

That’s how Simons, the fashion retailer’s chief merchant and former CEO, described the “All is Beauty” project in an interview with TVA days after the film about Jennyfer was released. In case you aren’t familiar with the limits-pushing campaign, read the in-depth launch story and Q&A by The Message here.

“I admit I’m a little surprised that everyone is focused on some of the choices she made while sick—how to end her life,” he continued (the translation is mine).

“The intent of the project was to highlight the story of her life, her resilience, her courage, her ability to see the beauty that leads her to hope, a generosity despite the circumstances. We wanted to do something less commercial. We perhaps felt—as a creative team—that we wanted to do something more around human connection, the company values, instead of something strictly commercial, and that’s the result of this project.

“Art that requires a deeper reflection, it’s always stressful to create and share it,” he said. “I know we all left much sweat and tears on the table during the last six months while creating this work”.

Simons is a shrewd merchant who made big bets expanding nationally and selling online in the U.S. He also clearly believes deeply in his company’s values. His desire to have meaningful conversations about beauty and life through art isn’t the result of a commercial strategy focused on purpose and mission to build the brand. It’s in his heart.

The heart of a man who studied engineering and economics before joining the family business.

“My father was always interested in art and there was certainly an understanding of the importance of the creative artist in the fashion environment,” he told Jeanne Beker in 2006, when she asked him about his desire to bring art into the business, including commissioning artist Guido Molinari to create a suspended glass sculpture, reportedly at a cost of $300,000.

“I didn’t have to go to the board and say, ‘We’re going to hire Guido Molinari to do this big installation in the middle of the store. Here’s the return on investment… ’I wouldn’t have wanted to be that guy. I’ve been in those situations, and you can’t quantify it. You have to just believe. Maybe today that faith is gone. Or it hasn’t maybe gone for small businesses, I don’t know. But in our business, it hasn’t gone. There is intuition and faith and meaning beyond the next quarter.”

He’s the real deal. I applaud him for championing this project, despite the risks. He told TVA that it’s a taboo subject, but “it’s perhaps a discussion that shouldn’t be taboo.”

And I believe him when he claims it has nothing to do with a commercial purpose or, as some have claimed, that it’s exploiting someone’s suffering to sell his brand of fashion.

“The objective was to reconnect after two years [of global pandemic] that everyone lived with much difficulty, with our values, to go back to be at ease with living in the moment,” he told TVA. “For the past two years, living in the moment wasn’t always pleasant… Jennyfer reminds us how to see beauty in good moments and in moments that are more difficult.”

The man clearly says what he means, and means what he says. And while he recently stepped down as the company’s CEO after 20 years, what he says inevitably reflects on his eponymous brand. It doesn’t make the Simons shirts and sweaters I own a symbol of civility, but it makes me respect the brand and business even more.

Not everyone agrees.

Predictably, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson used the story to be outraged, and in recent days there’s been a surge in coverage leading with the anger angle, with the word “dystopian” used more than once to describe the campaign. An online petition calling for a boycott of Simons has garnered more than 7,000 signatures, claiming that “Simons, a Canadian design and fashion company produced a three-minute commercial promoting their products along with euthanasia (MAiD).—Killing is not beautiful.”

While I applaud the Simons team and its creative partners, and I doubt there could have been a way to avoid the backlash, I’ll offer some Monday morning quarterbacking and risk the backlash myself.

Its a commercial,” even if it wasnt intended to be: When the story is told in thirty seconds, ending with a super and logo, and is aired during The Resident—sandwiched between a spot for McDonald’s and Volkswagen—it’s seen as having a commercial purpose. Mr. Simons published a video about the company’s motivation and beliefs along with the film in the retailer’s newsletter. The TV spot had none of that to give it proper context.

It wasnt a public service, but it could have been: Organizations like Reporting On Suicide provide best-practice guidelines for the media. It recommends avoiding glamorizing or romanticizing suicide, describing personal details about the person who died, and avoiding prominent placement of stories related to a suicide death in print or in a newscast. Perhaps the video should have included a website for people in need of help.

It was meant to be part of a campaign, but first impressions are everything: All is Beauty even in darkness. The idea is clearly anchored in the company’s beliefs about art and culture. “At Simons, we believe that art makes the world a more beautiful place and sparks new ideas.” Establishing the campaign idea with other, less controversial stories first, could perhaps have helped viewers see the importance of discussing what many consider taboo.

It was culture blind: I believe that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t change the fact that Simons markets in three geographies with different cultures: French and English Canada, and the U.S.

I spent three years studying in Quebec City, the home of Simons. It’s an institution there, and I suspect very few found the art project objectionable.

Quebeckers are also generally more supportive on MAiD, according to polls. Simons’ first foray in English Canada was in Edmonton in 2012, I suspect the story didn’t play as well there. And it clearly didn’t play well in the U.S.

While Simons isn’t saying much about why it pulled the videos, I suspect that in trying to mitigate risk, Simons will unfortunately lead many to conclude that the reason is commercial, with the implication that the investment was tied to the business after all.

To create this project with his team, Peter Simons says he remembered a piece of advice from his father: “See what is in your heart, and if it is in the right place, you have to go for it because there will always be people who doubt and you will never do anything in your life without courage.”

I hope the company won’t just go silent over this, and Mr. Simons will soon speak from the heart.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.