Friday, February 04, 2005


Is the "Crazy Bear" Making Fun of Mental Illness?

Vt. Teddy faces pressure over bear
By Matt Sutkoski | Free Press Staff Writer

Originally published January 14, 2005

Gov. Jim Douglas said Thursday a straitjacketed Vermont Teddy Bear is "very insensitive." A legislative committee is writing a letter of complaint about the bear, and advocates for the mentally ill say they want to meet with company officials to tell them to end sales of the "Crazy For You" bear.

The $69.95 bear is dressed in the straitjacket and comes with commitment papers. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, it is meant as a light-hearted message of deep romance. "The Crazy for You bear was created to help guys convey how they feel about their significant other, that they are smitten with their wife or girlfriend," company officials said in a statement.

To mental health advocates, many in state government and other Vermonters, the bear is demeaning and offensive to people struggling with mental illness.

"Just imagine the reaction if it was an ethnic group, or sexual orientation," said Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill.

The criticism started Tuesday. Vermont Teddy Bear responded with an apology for offending people.

"The Vermont Teddy Bear Company fully appreciates the serious nature of mental illness and the bear was not intended to diminish mental illness in any way," noted a written statement from the company. Nevertheless, the bear is still for sale until Feb. 15.

Thursday, advocates continued pressuring the company. "This is not a closed issue," Donahue said. "I was really stunned that a person of the credibility and background of Elisabeth Robert would not have responded immediately and pulled it from the market," she said, referring to Vermont Teddy Bear’s president and CEO.

"The whole package represents such an ignorance of how difficult and painful mental illness is," said Ken Libertoff of Vermont Association for Mental Health.

Vermont Teddy Bear spokeswoman Nicole L’Huillier said interest in the Crazy For You bear remains high, but she said she couldn’t provide sales figures. "We’re getting calls in support of the bear and people coming into the store asking to see it," she said.

Mental health advocates, including Donahue and Libertoff, faxed a letter to Vermont Teddy Bear officials asking to meet with them. L’Huillier said the company officials would do so.

Companies like Vermont Teddy Bear are often blindsided when groups object to their products or marketing, but a quick response can help them weather the storm, said Elaine Young, program director for Champlain College’s marketing program.

"Those companies that respond clearly, quickly and appropriately are usually the ones which do not run into problems in the long term," Young said. "Those companies who try to hide or duck or avoid it usually end up having problems around that."

Vermont Teddy Bear did respond quickly to the criticism, Young said, but did not pull the bear from the market, as many people wanted.

"What they have to weigh, of course, is demand for it versus those who are being offended," said Jay McKee, a professor of business administration at Champlain College.

People in high places might be voicing their objections, but there is little legally they can do about the bears. Douglas said mental illness should not be stigmatized, but he doesn’t want to tell a company what to do.

Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, chairwoman of the House Human Services Committee, said a letter to Vermont Teddy Bear objecting to the bear is to be drafted today.

"They don’t appear to understand it’s not funny," she said. "It’s not a joke."

L’Huillier said this is not the first time a Vermont Teddy Bear has stirred controversy. About six of the 100 or so bears the company sells are "edgy," as L’Huillier termed it. One bear advocated for gay rights, and was criticized by some church groups, L’Huillier said.

Libertoff said he hopes to use the bear dispute to educate both Vermont Teddy Bear and the general public about stigmatizing the mentally ill.

"Our goal is not necessarily to interfere with a company that has established itself in Vermont," he said. "Our goal is to make them better understand the inappropriateness of this marketing campaign,"

Free Press Staff Writer Terri Hallenbeck contributed to this report.
Contact Matt Sutkoski at 660-1846 or msutkosk@bfp.burlingtonfreepre

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