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Perspective: Did social conservatives get played by the Ulta controversy?

The company’s stock value declined after backlash over videos that celebrate fatness and trans girlhood. But it’s hard to believe Ulta didn’t see this coming

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In this 2020 file photo, women walk to an Ulta Beauty store in Schaumburg, Ill.

In this Nov. 5, 2020, file photo, women walk to an Ulta Beauty store in Schaumburg, Ill.

Nam Y. Huh, Associated Press

At first glance, the Ulta Beauty controversy seems to be another social-media blunder by a company that doesn’t understand its customers, or the risks of woke activism in the marketplace.

But is it really?

It’s hard to believe that Ulta, one of the leading cosmetics retailers in the U.S., didn’t see this coming. Were social conservatives played in order for the company to get a larger share of the young-adult market?

In a world where companies compete for attention, and where “earned” media coverage is prized, it’s not only worth considering, but likely.

Ulta’s stock value fell this week after widespread backlash to a series of videos called “The Beauty of ….” that features, among other things, a trans influencer talking about girlhood, and a woman who celebrated “the beauty of fatness” by suggesting that society oppresses people with its insistence that we ought to be not just thin, but healthy. 

“No one has to be healthy. Right? ... No one owes anybody that,” said Virgie Tovar, the author of “You Have the Right to Remain Fat,” while her interviewer, David Lopez, who identifies as gender fluid, nodded enthusiastically and decried societal “fatphobia.”

The biggest uproar, however, came when Ulta tweeted about the episode on “The Beauty of ... Girlhood,” which featured trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney talking about why beauty is important to her.

Mulvaney was already controversial because she calls herself a girl, not a woman, and has produced videos that equate girlhood with being a “bimbo” obsessed with make-up, high heels and mid-afternoon martinis. But most people were upset that Ulta chose her to represent the topic of girlhood.

Defenders of the company said the outcry reflected bigotry and hate toward transgender people. But commentator Megyn Kelly said on her show, “Ulta Beauty: We can respect these two without making them the focus of a video about girlhood. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Ulta’s stock value seemed to reflect the controversy this week.

But there were also people who applauded Ulta and said they planned to shop there to support the company, which announced earlier this year that it would spend $50 million on “diversity, equity and inclusive initiatives.” The company also said it would donate $2 million to LGBTQ+ and BIPOC nonprofits.

The new Dove?

Eighteen years ago, the skin care company Dove launched an initiative called the “Campaign for Real Beauty.” It was radical at the time. The company said it would no longer use models in its ads but “real women” whose images were not digitally enhanced.

Despite some missteps — including an ad that seemed to show a Black woman morphing into a white one, and a collection of weirdly shaped bottles meant to represent diversity of shapes — the “Campaign for Real Beauty” is widely perceived as a success. Today, Dove’s website is as much about its social mission as its products, promising “We can end appearance hate.”

Is Ulta trying to be the new Dove, at least in terms of social advocacy?

That’s possible, but it’s also likely that the company is shrewdly angling for younger customers.

Younger Americans are more accepting of transgender men and women than their parents. As Pew Research reported earlier this year, “When it comes to issues surrounding gender identity, young adults are at the leading edge of change and acceptance. Half of adults ages 18 to 29 say someone can be a man or a woman even if that differs from the sex they were assigned at birth.”

The problem for Ulta right now is that its customer base skews a little older than its competitor Sephora. “While Ulta is particularly strong among the under-34 set, as is Sephora, Ulta attracts a wider age range of customers. In terms of its online traffic, 32% of Ulta visitors are 45 years and older, as compared with 25% for Sephora,” Forbes reported in 2019.

And Ulta has been favored by older shoppers who are less likely to embrace transgenderism. “Considering age, Ulta has higher favorability ratings than Sephora with the over-30 crowd, especially those 55 and over,” the polling company CivicScience said about its findings.

The biggest problem facing Ulta right now, however, may be what CivicScience polling found about loyalty: “One-half of Sephora fans say they are ‘very loyal’ to their favorite brands, compared to just one-third of Ulta fans.”

In other words, when Ulta customers tweet that they’re done with the company, they may be gone for good.

‘Diversity-forward’

On Sunday, the company tweeted a statement that sounded a little bit like damage control, saying, “While we recognize some conversations we host will challenge perspectives and opinions, we believe constructive dialogue is one important way to move beauty forward.”

But for a brand that has been talking for years about being a “diversity-forward’ company, it’s a safe bet that everything is going according to plan.

Ulta’s ESG report in 2020 talked about wanting employees to be their “true, authentic selves” and also said, “As a leader in the beauty industry, we have a responsibility to shape how the world sees and experiences beauty.”

There is breathtaking hubris in that statement, that a business that sells lipstick and deep-cleaning pore strips believes it should shape how the world — not just its customers —perceives beauty.

But it’s clear that Ulta is doing exactly what it’s been saying it would do for several years. The company is betting that its future lies with young progressives, not social conservatives. It may well be right.

Then again, older conservatives tend to have more money than young progressives, which could cause Ulta some grief in the short term, if not the long.

That’s the beauty of ... the free market.