News & Politics

This Nail Polish Line Is Just One More Example of Marketers Pigeonholing DC

I’m not the biggest fan of ABC’s Scandal. I tried getting into it once at a girlfriend’s insistence and, to put it not-at-all-delicately, the acting and writing made CSI: Los Angeles seem emotionally compelling. But recently the scandal of the show’s moniker has jumped off of the primetime TV screen and into makeup bags everywhere with OPI’s Fall/Winter 2016 line of Kerry Washington-inspired nail polish. It is pretty much everything that is wrong with the national marketing and media’s depictions of DC.

In case you missed it, the 15 shade collaboration between OPI’s Suzi Weiss-Fischmann and Kerry Washington was released on the beauty market this past May. The collection, dubbed the “Washington DC Lacquer” collection, included 12 regular DC-themed shades and three special shades directly referencing Washington and her role on Scandal as Olivia Pope, a high-powered, red-wine-loving media-spin guru who leads an all-star team of crisis management oddballs. The nail polish names run the gamut from the merely groan-inducing “Pale to the Chief” to the truly cringe-worthy “Yank My Doodle” and “Stay Off the Lawn!!”

Maybe I’m missing something, but could someone please explain to me what “Squeaker of the House” is getting at? What does Paul Ryan have to do with my nails? Or nail color for that matter? Is “squeaker” the equivalent of a beauty industry jab at our government’s legislature? Is this a Scandal reference going over my head? Thankfully, OPI leaves us clues as to the meaning of each hue’s eponym with a carefully packaged marketing line. For example, the “Squeaker of the House” is “a chocolate brown so yummy, it crosses party lines.” Ahh, that explains it. The tangerine-hued “Freedom of Peach” proclaims that “wearing this creamy peach is your fashion right.” Good to know that with all our nation’s flaws, I still have the right to flaunt nail polish in a tantalizing hue akin to Trump’s coif (and on a good day, his spray tan too).

If the beauty industry can’t find a better way to market DC’s demographic beyond puns on our regional airport (“Never A Dulles Moment”), one has to think what kind of precedent that sets for something with less of a luxe marketing budget…say used cars or plumbing services.

The truth is, I’ve always wondered who makes up the names for nail polishes (and Benjamin Moore paint swatches, and J. Crew Shoes). Some part of me has always reluctantly assumed that the individuals responsible for the naming of such products are career creatives, double-threat powerhouses with MBAs in marketing and the profound poetic sensitivity of Murakami.

Instead, the OPI Kerry Washington “Washington DC Lacquer” launched, and I discovered that the names might well have been developed by E.L. James–an E.L. James nestled away in London, never having set foot in the capital across the Atlantic about which she was writing nail polish puns. Because no one who has lived in this area would resort to the shallow approach used here to market to DC’s chic power women, (and men), with trite clichés about “empowering” pinks (“We the Female,”) “commanding reds (“Madam President,”) colors that make a “strong Federal case” (“‘Liv’ in Grey,”) or hues with “capital flair” (“Kerry Blossom”). Then there is the dark green for “secret agent fashionistas” (“CIA = Color is Awesome”) and a deep brown “so dark its incognito” (“Shh…It’s Top Secret”). 

Moving past the fact that few of these names have anything to do with describing a color, or, you know, long-lasting paint varnish you can wear on your fingernails, most of these are just bad. And worse, they perpetuate a tunnel-vision approach to a city with much more nuance, culture, and depth than the stodgy “empowering women in a predominantly old, white, male game of politics” narrative. Sure we have lots of young entrepreneurs, lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians who are women. The trend OPI is touting is decades past revolutionary or clever. There is more to DC than politics, or (gasp!) even women conquering politics. We have hip neighborhoods. We have powerhouse fashion innovators (just give our September issue a read). We have hot restaurants and amazing parks. We are staggeringly fit. Millennials are flocking here and yet, our rent is still competitive compared to other big cities. And our music scene, from its punk roots to its world-class opera houses–is quite simply killing it. We have a crazy outpouring of history, architecture, and culture at every corner (free museums!) But sure, let’s fall back on a tired cliché–DC, the city of politics–to market, of all things, nail polish. I’m shocked we made it through OPI’s capital-inspired rainbow without at least one bipartisan pun, or the obvious Washington’s Washington. 

Refinery29‘s review of the posh colors was thoughtful enough to translate our choices into clear language any Washingtonian can understand…because apparently our comprehension is limited to political jargon: “So click through and shop your favorites,” it reads, “Democracy never looked this good.” Actually, if you were to ask anyone in our political system–or basically any American right now–they’d probably say that in this current political environment, democracy never looked so bad. The irony is poorly timed. And no “empowering garnet” enamel on my fingernails is going to make me feel better about that, so I’d appreciate a reigning-in of political rhetoric.  Politics, in fact, may just be the absolute very last thing I want to think about it when I’m curling up to Netflix after a long day in the office to give myself a budget-friendly manicure.

Little attention from OPI’s campaign has been given to the fact that Kerry Washington attended college in DC and actually worked for the White House early in her career. You could make the argument that her nail polish line is an expression of her personal experiences here. Perhaps that is the role OPI is referring to by coronating her with the trendy term of “brand ambassador.” Maybe we should approach the bad puns, flip references, and rampant alliteration with the grain of salt usually reserved for beauty products. But if this collection encapsulates Washington’s experiences in our fair city, that’s a shame. Because somewhere between Dulles Airport, Langley, and the Oval Office there is a real live metropolitan city out there. Pulsing, breathing, and full of nail-polish wearers who don’t, in fact, dress exclusively in power suits.

Assistant Editor

Hayley is an Associate Editor at Washingtonian Weddings. Previously she was the the Style Editor at The Local Palate, a Southern food culture magazine based out of Charleston, South Carolina. You can follow her on instagram @wandertaste.