Home World Business Coles winds back ‘I’m free’ Easter ad campaign after staff sexually harassed

Coles winds back ‘I’m free’ Easter ad campaign after staff sexually harassed

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Coles has wound back its Easter advertising campaign after employees waving an ‘I’m Free’ paddle were sexually harassed by customers.

The supermarket giant told Fairfax Media on Thursday night they were forced to ditch the hand-held signs after reports it led to customers making inappropriate comments to staff. 

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Checkout staff who were encouraged to hold “I’m Free” signs as part of a new ad campaign said they had received unwanted advances from customers.

“Unfortunately in response to a small number of customers behaving disrespectfully to team members, we have now removed the hand-held signs,” a Coles spokeswoman said.

In the Easter advertising blitz Coles announced it was opening extra cashiers over the long weekend, but employees and their families have complained that the campaign has sexual undertones and puts staff at risk. 

An image from the Coles "I'm free" ad. An image from the Coles “I’m free” ad. Photo: Facebook/@harry.short1

Coles employee Emily Henderson wrote on Facebook that she was horrified by comments customers had made in response to the signs.

“The comments have been horrible … we have had it from BOTH (sic) male and female, old and young.”

Kim Baker said she would encourage her Coles “teammates” to refuse to participate in the “thoughtless and demeaning” campaign. 

She wrote on the company’s Facebook page that while she did not suffer any harassment on her weekend shift, the campaign’s “sexual innuendo” made her feel “uncomfortable” in her workplace. 

“Having employees holding a paddle with the words ‘I’m Free’ in large font (with ‘at Coles’ in tiny font, relative to the sign) and have to smile, laugh and nod at every lewd comment that passes their way, while scanning groceries is not an ideal work environment,” she said. 

“Thankfully, that was not my experience during my entire shift this weekend past, however it happened enough times for me to feel uncomfortable in my workplace. How about ‘How Can I Help’ or ‘Can I Help You’? Same message, no sexual innuendo.”

Cheryl Pole Hepburn wrote on Coles’ Facebook page that she was “absolutely horrified” when she approached a cash register where staff were holding the signs on the weekend. 

“The verbal abuse and suggestions coming from customers to staff members was disgusting! I really think you need to rethink the whole idea – if I knew any friends daughters or sons applying for work as a cashier I’d advise against it!”

Another customer, Sonja Dada, shared a similar story: “In my local store… I saw a register operator basically bullied in front of customers to stand with his sign by management… I also heard of men catcalling objectifying (sic) young women working the registers. Take the signs away or lose customers to Woolies/Aldi’s… the response from service desk was appalling.”

Kylie McKenzie wrote on Coles’ Facebook page that she was relieved that the “dumb campaign signs” were taken off her daughters’ cash register recently. 

“The number of lewd and suggestive comments made to the female service staff in the short time they had the signs in their hands, by mostly male customers including but not limited to, ‘You’re free? When can I take you home?’ was absolutely disgusting,” she said. 

“Some may argue that the customers were being cute or funny or conversational … but think about grown men saying such things to your 16, 17 or 18 year old child, school aged child, whilst in her workplace. A place she should feel safe. And it wasn’t only the young ones copping the comments.”

Over the weekend, Harris Short told Coles over Facebook that their campaign was off-putting.

The promotional video shows a female Coles employee fanning herself with the ‘I’m Free’ sign behind a muscly, tall man in a singlet top. 

Mr Short wrote: “At the end of the advert a sexualised scene takes place where a female employee ‘checks out’ a male customer in a singlet.

“I’m offended that this was included. I shop at Coles and do not appreciate the company encouraging employees to sexualise me. In this day and age it’s absolutely unacceptable for this to be encouraged as part of your brand image and work ethic.”

A Coles spokeswoman said the signs were supposed to “indicate an open checkout” and be “a fun way of activating the campaign”.

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