Still, brand executives and a psychologist behind the campaign stand by its message, saying the campaign highlighted the positive influences women can have on one another and the social pressures women often face when balancing personal and working life.
“There’s so much negativity around the female relationship when it’s a source of great strength,” Julie Lehman, marketing director for Lean Cuisine, told The Washington Post. “[The campaign] allows you to really understand your own ‘it all’ in your own way.”
But outside experts say Lean Cuisine misjudged the effect of sharing the hashtag on social media.
And they say the campaign could have homed in on similar themes by not only focusing on women.
“This could have been in general, ‘How can Americans, how can humans have it all?’ ” said Angeline Close Scheinbaum, an advertising professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Why did they need to do this targeted campaign just to women? That would have been a very simple fix.”
The #ItAll campaign features a four-minute video showing a group of women discussing what “having it all” means to them. Eighteen women are brought into a makeshift store where they can choose items representing different life paths — including goals for family and career — into a shopping cart. Each of the options in the store was identical to those that appeared on a survey that all of the women filled out on their own weeks before.
As of Friday morning, the video had been viewed more than 9.5 million times.
In the video, the women shop alongside friends and family and talk about their own struggles balancing aspirations for the future. One of the women talks about how she doesn’t know how she would raise a family alongside graduate school and work. Others share whether they want children, and if so, how many.
The experiment was led by Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist at New York University, who found that the women’s priorities and goals shifted when the women discussed their goals with other women close to them, including mothers and best friends. The experiment showed that when in the store and surrounded by others, the women made more ambitious choices in the areas that mattered most to them.
“We’re pushing each other to try to take on more, especially in those areas that we’ve articulated as being really key to what we think is our ideal life,” Balcetis told The Post.
Scheinbaum said she appreciated that the experiment showed how the women influenced one another’s shopping choices. But Scheinbaum said that while Lean Cuisine’s “intent was beautiful,” it lost control when it invited others to engage with the #ItAll hashtag on social media.
“When you want to have digital engagement, that’s a very, very risky brand strategy,” Scheinbaum said.
Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University, said there was nothing intrinsically wrong with an ad campaign that broached conversations about women “having it all,” adding that she recently sat on a panel of female entrepreneurs where much of the conversation surrounded exactly that.
But Egan said Lean Cuisine still clashed with two cultural phenomena that led it to “miss the mark.”
First, consumers may have reacted — even subconsciously — to the sound of “#ItAll” and associated it with “#MeToo.” And those who criticized the campaign may not have watched the whole filmed experiment to see how it approached “having it all.”
“It’s one of those sparks that ignites, and a brand hopes they ignite in a positive direction, but unfortunately it just turned left for them,” Egan said.
Lean Cuisine promoted the #ItAll slogan as a way for women to share their stories online, but the hashtag quickly caught on as a tool to bash the campaign and company. Many comments addressed how ad campaigns would rarely consider asking men how they define “having it all,” or said the brand forwarded tropes of diet culture and body-shaming.
As one put it on Twitter: “Having #ItAll means not having diet food directly targeted at me because I’m a woman. What year is it again?”
To ride the criticism, Egan said Lean Cuisine should stop promoting the campaign and “let it sort of run its course, because generally consumer memories are very short.” Lehman and Balcetis said they had no plans to change or take down the campaign.
Speaking by phone, Scheinbaum laughed as her young son suddenly ran into the room to interrupt. In the background, Scheinbaum’s mother chimed: “You can’t have it all!”
“You can use my story!” said Scheinbaum, an author and mother of two. “I love the intent and the message but … that could have happened to a man as well. And that’s a huge point.”