On the morning of Monday, December 4, journalists received a press release from Victoria’s Secret about its new campaign for the holidays. It announced that PINK, the underwear line marketed towards high school and college students, was going to set aside slogans like “Sure Thing” and “Unwrap Me” on its underwear for ones supporting female empowerment and a culture of consent, aiming with phrases like “Ask First” and “Respect” to normalize and make sexy the idea that sex should always start with explicit consent. The website for the new PINK Loves CONSENT campaign, pinklovesconsent.com, went up at noon and soon had over 50,000 visitors. Support for the campaign rocketed through social networks.
But, as a number of people guessed, the campaign wasn’t by Victoria’s Secret at all. Early the next morning, feminist group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture claimed responsibility for the campaign, thrilled with the viral discussion about rape culture and consent it had sparked.
Apparently Victoria’s Secret didn’t get the memo. Also on Tuesday, Victoria’s Secret sent a letter to FORCE’s hosting provider demanding that it take down pinklovesconsent.com and a related site. The letter claimed the now-obvious and well-publicized parody infringed multiple Victoria’s Secret trademarks and copyrights. That evening, in the midst of a social media campaign to promote sex-positive values during the Victoria’s Secret fashion show, Twitter suspended the campaign’s Twitter handle, @LoveConsent, with no explanation. A link allowing users to tweet at Victoria’s Secret asking the company to support consent also appeared to be blocked for most of the night. Facebook left the PINK Loves CONSENT page up but appeared to remove it from search results.
Though nothing was down for long—the site was only down briefly as FORCE moved to a different hosting provider and the Twitter account was back up by Friday, December 7—even the brief downtime hurt the campaign. FORCE had purposefully launched PINK Loves CONSENT immediately prior to the fashion show to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the event, which attracted nearly 10 million viewers. During the show, tweets about body acceptance and the importance of normalizing a culture of enthusiastic consent made #loveconsent the number one hashtag associated with #victoriassecret. The Facebook page was similarly inundated. FORCE was able to use Victoria’s Secret’s popularity to raise awareness and generate discussion about rape culture on an unprecedented level. When its Twitter account and subsequently its websites were taken down, that discussion was interrupted at a vital time.
These takedowns highlight, once again, the weakest link problem that plagues Internet speech. Individuals and organizations rely on service providers to help them communicate with the world (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). A copyright complaint to an intermediary generally triggers a virtually automatic takedown, because the intermediary has a strong interest in complying with the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) and preserving its safe harbor from copyright liability. A trademark complaint directed to one of those providers can also mean a fast and easy takedown given that those service providers usually don’t have the resources and/or the inclination to investigate trademark infringement claims. Moreover, because there is no counter-notice procedure, the targets of an improper trademark takedown have no easy way to get their content back up.
Fortunately, PINK Loves CONSENT appears to have recovered and is continuing in its mission of promoting female empowerment and consent. Both the website and the Twitter account are back up and promoting new stunts, with one small change: the site’s “Important Copyright Notice” now links to the Wikipedia entry on fair use.