Whole Foods launched its first national ad campaign this week, using a new themeline: “Values Matter.” The ads, created by New York agency Partners & Spade, are upbeat and mostly unobjectionable. “Eat Like an Idealist,” says one. “Healthy Food Does Good,” says another.
Then there’s this one:
“Grow Up Strong and Harmless.” But not armless, obviously.
I … don’t get this. I mean, “Grow Up Strong”—sure, fine, OK. But how does one “Grow Up Harmless”? What could that possibly mean?
“Harmless” has several dictionary definitions: inoffensive (“He seems harmless enough”) and benign (“harmless bacteria”) are the most familiar. There’s also a legal definition, the one we see in the boilerplate language “to hold harmless”: “free from loss or legal liability.”
But the WF ad doesn’t appear to use “harmless” in any of those senses. Instead—as far as I can tell—it’s meant to be a synonym for “kind” or “ethical.” Or possibly “Without Causing Harm to Anything on the Planet.” That’s quite a semantic leap, and, frankly, senseless.
Then again, I may just be too square for the rarefied sensibilities of Partners & Spade, which has built its reputation on too-cool-for-school chic. The agency’s inverted name is one tipoff; its strenuously self-effacing tagline—“A Well-Intentioned Endeavor”—is another. The P&S client list is a hipster honor roll: Warby Parker, Shinola, Harry’s shaving products. The Spade on the nameplate is Andy Spade, husband of Kate and co-founder of the fashion label Kate Spade and the grownup jammies label Sleepy Jones. I’d tweet a query about “harmless,” to P&S, but the account’s been moribund for more than a year. Too cool for Twitter, even!
The “harmless” Whole Foods ad triggered my recollection of another grocery-store “harmless.”
Harmless Harvest 100% Raw & Organic Coconut Water.
The first time I encountered this name I thought it sounded weirdly apologetic: damning with the faintest of praise. But at least it has alliteration on its side; Whole Foods’ “harmless” just sounds confused.
I did find one use of “harmless” that’s not merely well intentioned but also well targeted: Harmless.org, a UK organization that helps “people who self harm, their friends and families and professionals.” At last—someone who knows how to keep “harmless” out of harm’s way.