Reach out and touch someone, but please, not our spokesperson


Our ability to influence how others react to us is finite. We can devise slight physical modifications, but the most striking aspects of our appearance (skeletal size, vigor of melanin production) remain largely fixed. We can design our own behavior, but we are only making educated guesses about how it will be received.

If your face, your voice and your countenance inspire other feelings grouped in the “neutral” to “positive” bands of the reaction spectrum, allowing a major brand to take advantage of your appearance for its advertisements, to embody in hisyourself: it can be a lucrative venture. For actress Stephanie Courtney, who has played Flo, a brand character representing the insurance company Progressive, for more than 15 years, for example, it has been so profitable that she never needs to work again. But the risk of generating massive responses to your image is that all kinds of images may appear. Sometimes public affection for a brand character goes from friendly to depraved.

In 2013, Milana Vayntrub, a 26-year-old actress, auditioned for the role of a cheerful store clerk in a national advertisement. “I dressed the way I imagined a friendly girl would dress,” she recalled Vayntrub over the phone a decade later. She was wearing a blue cotton dress with a floral print, white sneakers and her long hair tied in a ponytail. Vayntrub was convincing as a pleasant store supervisor. She landed the role, playing Lily, a brunette who had mildly comedic interactions with strangers while working at an AT&T store, for about three years, becoming, in the process, a little less famous than a C-list celebrity, but a lot More famous than most people.

After Lily's campaign ended in 2017, Vayntrub stopped acting in commercials entirely and began directing them. She (she was hired by a production company that had worked on some of AT&T's ads). She later directed ads for everything from cheese brands to charitable foundations. In 2020, when Covid shutdowns paralyzed commercial productions, Vayntrub and a colleague proposed, unsolicited, the resurrection of the store clerk to AT&T: this time, Lily would work from home. AT&T gave the green light to the proposal. Vayntrub directed the ads herself. She filmed the national ads in her own home, recreating Lily's hair and makeup herself under the remote supervision of a professional.

However, a few months after the retaliation, the tenor of Lily's (and therefore Vayntrub's) reception abruptly veered from benign tolerance to lascivious malevolence. In the summer of 2020, seemingly overnight, a small but vocal corner of the internet set its sights on Vayntrub and began referring to her by a new name: Mommy Milkers, a reference to her breasts. En masse, people spammed the comments sections of AT&T's social media posts with lewd remarks and milk glass emojis. The taunts became inescapable for Vayntrub and filtered into the comments of her personal social media accounts. Recent and years-old posts were attacked. Her personal photographs were widely redistributed to strangers. Spam websites promised access to pornographic videos of her that did not exist. The physical isolation of lockdown exacerbated Vayntrub's experience. “Our real world was so small,” she said, “that the Internet seemed to be everything.”

I found out about Vayntrub's challenge on social media while writing an article about Stephanie Courtney. I had been surprised by the placidity of Courtney's life in the public eye. Progressive's calculations suggest that Flo is recognizable to a large majority of Americans; Almost equally notable is the fact that Flo (or rather Courtney) has avoided becoming the object of rabid online pornographic interest, a not uncommon fate for women in public roles in the 21st century.

It is impossible to weigh the variables that created this fortunate outcome for Courtney but not for Vayntrub. Was it because Courtney was in her early 30s when she started playing Flo, more than a decade older than Vayntrub in her first appearance as Lily? Was it because, while each character dresses conservatively, Flo's wardrobe erases any trace of curves by sheathing her in a voluminous apron? (At a commercial shoot last spring, Courtney's manager was attentive to the way she hung her apron when Courtney sat, fearful that the fabric would create shapes in her chest area.) Perhaps the discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Flo is friendly but intentionally unreal, almost magical; Lily, on the other hand, is intended to represent an actual AT&T store employee.

The attack could have cost Vayntrub his job; It's not ideal if an advertiser is forced to scold potential customers for interacting with content they've paid to show them, as AT&T did in their own comments sections. (“We do not tolerate sexual harassment of employees in the workplace or on our social channels,” @ATT responded to an Instagram user who announced his desire to “suck” Vayntrub’s breasts.) The company issued a statement condemning the harassment. It worked with social platforms to stem the flow of inappropriate comments and put Vayntrub in touch with an Instagram team to discuss ways to further mitigate the issue.

Courtney, who counts many other brand character actors as friends, contacted Vayntrub by phone while this was happening. Courtney was empathetic; Vayntrub had been chosen, essentially at random, to receive a barrage of violent and sexual ridicule from legions of strangers for doing a job essentially identical to their own. Vayntrub remembered that Courtney was a good listener. And talking to her made Vayntrub feel “like there are people on my team,” he said. Vayntrub addressed the trolls directly on Instagram, asking for more respectful treatment. She was dismayed to see her requests described as “pleas” in media coverage. Those articles portrayed her, she said, as even more of a victim than she thought. “As if she was begging a lover not to abandon me in the pouring rain.”

What I wanted to understand about Courtney was how a person's life changed when they shared their image with a brand so completely that their face became synonymous with that brand. Courtney described a nice trade-off: She has given up anonymity and theoretically infinite, though not necessarily fruitful, creative freedom in exchange for the security of a stable, well-paying job. The flip side of this deal is that she's too well-known as Flo to be seriously considered for many other projects.

Vayntrub's partnership with AT&T is less indelible and almost certainly less profitable. But his work in the ads has already had tremendous personal consequences. Without Lily, he might never have started a career directing commercials; Chances are she wouldn't have spent a summer being called Mommy Milkers either. As director of some of the ads, Ella Vayntrub was able to exert control over how she was portrayed, framing shots so that her body was even less visible than in previous ones. advertisements.

When we spoke, I asked Vayntrub if the benefits he gained from lending his image to AT&T were enough to outweigh the drawbacks, given what happened. Despite the gulf between his and Courtney's experience, Vayntrub's response was immediate: “One hundred percent.”

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