Single people are finally getting the attention they deserve from marketers — but are brands exploiting a culture of singles shaming that they helped create?

For decades, Valentine’s Day has offered burnt out marketers the sweet relief of a turnkey campaign: a few animated hearts, a flirty pink font, and sultry copy pull on heartstrings (and guilty consciences) until sweethearts around the world are rushing out to buy overpriced cards and chocolates.

But in recent years, a different side of the Valentine’s Day marketing cycle has emerged: rebellious taglines and “treat yo’self” campaigns targeted directly at single people, encouraging them to eschew tradition and celebrate themselves on the international day of love.

While it may seem, at first glance, like a good thing that marketers are finally speaking to everyone (not just those that are blissfully in love), this movement warrants a bit of healthy skepticism. Let’s unpack this new trend.

Creating the Couples Superiority Complex — and Undermining It

Here’s the thing: I love the idea of empowering single people on Valentine’s Day. You don’t need a boyfriend to buy you that necklace you’ve been eyeing. You can buy it your damn self! While love and romance can and should be celebrated, Valentine’s Day has become a tired, out-of-date holiday that elevates romantic relationships as a goal to work towards, leaving single people feeling understandably left out.

But Valentine’s Day as we know it wouldn’t exist without the hard work of hundreds of thousands of marketers who have seized the opportunity to push products on people in relationships, in turn alienating — inadvertently or not — single people. So when I think about those same marketers turning around and marketing to those same single people as if they, the marketer, are an ally? Well, that’s when things start feeling a little off.

A post shared by SinglesSwag (@singlesswag) on

A Subscription Box For Single Ladies

Let’s look at SinglesSwag, the subscription box service that bills itself as “a fun, stylish monthly surprise for amazing single women.”

Hmm, ok.

According to Inc., the company’s founder Jonathan Beskin (note: not a single woman) made a “smart play on the market” by targeting an underserved group. As Slate author Heather Schwendel explains, “women, Beskin found, were meme-ing all over the ‘net about being single (presumably with lots of Cathy cartoons and Bridget Jones GIFs), but tragically, no one was making any money off of it.”

So Beskin set out to capitalize on the subscription box craze with a not-at-all patronizing monthly goodie bag of “organic bath and beauty products, fun, trending fashion accessories, delicious artisan-crafted foods,” and “exciting surprises just for you,” according to the website’s “What’s Inside” page. You know, the essentials every single woman wishes a man could buy for her, but tragically has to buy for herself.

But wait, there’s more! “At SinglesSwag we do not subscribe to any societal or cultural expectations on women,” reads the site’s about page. They came up with the idea that women only love fancy beauty products and trendy accessories all by themselves — completely free from the influence of age-old gender stereotypes!

“We believe a woman’s happiness is determined by her outlook and attitude, not by her relationship status,” the page continues. Which, if you think about it, is a curious way to describe a brand that is, according to Slate, “founded entirely around defining women by their relationship statuses and assuming that they eventually want to end up in traditional monogamous partnerships.”

It’s the New York Post that sums up the brand’s transgressions most succinctly: “The box lumps all single women into a clichéd tribe of sad spinsters given to crying into tubs of Ben & Jerry.”

The Hypocrisy of #VDayMeDay

While Beskin’s big box idea is certainly exploitative and condescending, at least it’s somewhat consistent: it’s not simultaneously marketing to couples. Meanwhile, there are countless brands that exploit both couples and singles.

Take Victoria’s Secret, for example. Few brands have made more money peddling over-the-top sexiness — or at least one very narrow definition of sexiness — and cheap romantic tropes. Last year, the brand’s Valentine’s Day Instagram campaign featured videos of models writhing around on various pieces of furniture set to music.

“February 14th is a month away — you’ve been warned,” read one saucy caption.

What are we being warned against? Are men being warned not to forget a sexy gift? Women to get into shape to wear said sexy gift? Single people to find a boo before the big day arrives, so that they have someone to whom they might give a sexy gift? Regardless, I think we can file this one solidly under “Valentine’s Cliche.”

But this year, the brand has taken a different approach with an extensive hashtag campaign: #VDayMeDay. Forget sexy! Forget romance! Cozy up on the couch with your gal pals in a pair of Victoria’s Secret jammies and say no to the stupid commercial holiday from which Victoria’s Secret has certainly never benefitted and definitely isn’t exploiting now.

Better to Have Never Loved At All

Which brings us to the age old question: Is it better for Valentine’s Day marketers to completely overlook sad, lonely single people and pretend they don’t exist, or to pander directly to the loneliness that the holiday (propped up by marketers themselves) has caused?

In a perfect world, people wouldn’t need a manufactured holiday to celebrate love or mourn their solitude. But in the meantime, marketers would do well to infuse an ounce more authenticity — and originality, in Beskin’s case — into their campaigns aimed at single people.

Regardless of their relationship status, today’s consumers aren’t stupid. Marketers: you’ve been warned.

Author Grace Stearns

A graduate of Pepperdine University, Grace has worked in PR and brand communications at publishing giants like Condé Nast, Hearst Magazines Digital Media, and Simon & Schuster. She writes about content marketing, social media, and technology for L&T's blog. A reluctant West Coast transplant, Grace lives in Brooklyn and spends a majority of her free time curled up with a good book.

More posts by Grace Stearns