Reese Witherspoon's giveaway to honor teachers is epic fail

Reese Witherspoon is an actress, producer, and entrepreneur. One of her ventures is an online shopping site for her clothing line called Draper James. She was looking for a way to honor the efforts of teachers during the coronavirus pandemic since schools are closed and teachers are working with students remotely. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished.

Generally speaking, I like Witherspoon’s work as an actress. I’ve enjoyed lots of her movies and television projects. She has a good reputation as far as Hollywood personalities go, not known as a jerk like so many others are. She’s involved in politics, most recently in the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood. She’s proven to be a savvy businesswoman. All that said, I was a little surprised to read that a good gesture by her through her clothing line went so horribly wrong.

The idea was for Draper James to do a giveaway for teachers. The prize was a free dress from the clothing line. Sounds nice, right? The teachers were really excited to enter the giveaway, too excited. About one million teachers responded. At the time they filled out the form online and provided their email addresses, the teachers had no way of knowing that only 250 dresses were available to be awarded. The entry form only said, “while supplies last”. Oops.

The company made the announcement on April 2 on Instagram.

As I said, She’s a savvy businesswoman and knows how to market her company. The dress giveaway received publicity the next day on NBC’s TODAY show with Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush. It was also featured on Good Morning America. Witherspoon’s fans in the teaching profession were really excited.

“In many parts of the country, a lot of teachers really don’t feel appreciated, and don’t get paid very well, and the idea of a free dress during a high-stress time was really exciting,” said Natalie Ornell, a substitute middle-school teacher in the Boston public school system. “It was really like Cinderella.”

Tammy Meyer, a kindergarten teacher in the Georgia public school system, felt the same way. “It was Reese Witherspoon!” she said. “She’s always been one of my favorite actresses. To have a dress associated with her at a time when everyone is so overwhelmed — I guess we were grasping at straws.”

Draper James is a newish, small company. It has been in business for about five years and employs 30 people. There are 3 million teachers in America, mostly female, and the giveaway was a project that quickly overwhelmed the company.

The application form crashed almost immediately. Just days after the original Instagram post appeared, it had been viewed more than 400,000 times. Teachers were emailing one another and sharing it online. By the close of the application period, Draper James had almost one million applications — which was approximately seven times the total number of dresses they had sold in 2019.

“We felt like we moved too quickly and didn’t anticipate the volume of the response,” said Marissa Cooley, the senior vice president for brand marketing and creative at Draper James. “We were really overwhelmed. It was way more volume than the company had ever seen. We expected the single-digit thousands.”

Frankly, even “single-digit thousands” of entries would have likely been too much for the staff to handle well. That estimate could have gone up to 9,999, still with only 250 dresses available to give away. The entrants were rightly frustrated when they were told the giveaway was really a raffle. Each person was contacted by the company as Draper James staff tried to smooth things over with the public. Then the frustration turned into anger. Suddenly it all looked like a marketing and publicity stunt to those who didn’t win a free dress. As one man pointed out, the teachers had to submit a copy of their teacher id to enter, as well as email addresses.

The teachers’ email inboxes were soon filled with promotional offers from Draper James and the teachers who didn’t win a free dress received a 30% discount on a future purchase. The problem with the discount offer, though, for many teachers, is that they couldn’t afford Witherspoon’s clothing line even with 30% off.

Reese Witherspoon is trusted by her fans. Many probably thought this giveaway was much like those that have been offered by other wealthy celebrities, like Oprah. (Reese even has an Oprah-style book club.) Teachers probably thought that she personally was footing the bill for all the teachers to get a dress. The limit of 250 that was available to be given away was a shock. Witherspoon makes $2 million per episode for “The Morning Show” on Apple TV. Her salary is reported to be $1.1 million per episode for her current television project, Little Fires Everywhere on Hulu. Her net worth is reported to be $240 million. It’s not Oprah money but she is doing very well.

Draper James is working to repair its image after the fiasco. Some teachers are slow to warm to the outreach, though.

Over Easter weekend, Draper James sent another letter to its applicants, stating that it was making a donation (the company declined to say how much) to a charity that supplies teachers with school necessities to send to their remote-learning students, as well as “actively working on expanding our offerings, both internally and with outside retail partners who were also inspired by your stories and want to join in honoring your community, and we ask for your patience while we organize this effort.” It added a gigantic “unsubscribe” button to the email.

Ms. Meyer, for one, was not particularly satisfied.

“It was a pretty weak apology,” she said. “They weren’t very clear with what they are specifically going to do with their ‘partnering up’ and trying to make up for their mistake and satisfy educators.”

Draper James has made good on its pledge to donate to a charity to provide teachers with supplies.

The unspecified donation to DonorsChoose, an organization that allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects, will support high-needs teachers in New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville and other cities, a representative of the nonprofit told Page Six.

DonorsChoose said the teachers will get grants to spend on supplies to be shipped directly to students’ homes as they learn remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

It sounds like Reese’s heart was in the right place but her company didn’t have the ability to follow through, plus it was poorly rolled out. The aftermath of disappointed teachers is no doubt a bitter pill to swallow.