When Being a Spokeswoman Brings Unwanted Attention

Our ability to influence how others react to us is finite. We can devise slight physical modifications, but the most conspicuous aspects of our appearance (skeleton size, vigor of melanin production) remain largely fixed. We can design our own behavior but make only educated guesses as to how it will be received.

If your face, voice and mien inspire in others feelings clustered in the “neutral” to “positive” bands of the reaction spectrum, allowing a major brand to harness your appearance for its advertisements — to embody itself in yourself — can be a lucrative undertaking. For the actress Stephanie Courtney, who has portrayed Flo, a brand character representing the insurance company Progressive, for more than 15 years, for instance, it has been so exceedingly profitable that she need never work again. But the risk of inviting mass responses to your likeness is that all sorts might show up. Sometimes public affection for a brand character mutates from friendly to depraved.

In 2013, Milana Vayntrub, a 26-year-old actress, tried out for the role of a cheerful store employee in a national commercial. “I dressed like I imagined a friendly girl would dress,” Vayntrub recalled by phone a decade later. She wore a blue floral-print cotton dress with white sneakers, her long hair pulled into a ponytail. Vayntrub was convincing as a pleasant store supervisor. She landed the part, playing Lily, a brunette who had mildly comic interactions with strangers while working in an AT&T store, for about three years — becoming, in the process, slightly less famous than a C-list celebrity, but much more famous than most people.

After the Lily campaign ended in 2017, Vayntrub stopped acting in commercials entirely and took up directing them. (She was hired by a production company that had worked on some of the AT&T spots.) She went on to direct ads for everything from cheese brands to charitable foundations. In 2020, when Covid lockdowns paralyzed commercial productions, Vayntrub and a colleague proposed — unsolicited — the resurrection of the chipper store employee to AT&T: This time, Lily would be working from home. AT&T greenlit the proposal. Vayntrub directed the spots herself. She filmed the national ads in her own house, recreating Lily’s hair and makeup herself under the remote supervision of a professional.

In 2020, during Covid lockdowns, Vayntrub self-directed national ads in her own home.Credit…AT&T

A few months into the reprisal, however, the tenor of Lily’s — and therefore Vayntrub’s — reception abruptly veered from benign tolerance to lecherous malevolence. In the summer of 2020, seemingly overnight, one small but vocal corner of the internet fixed its gaze upon Vayntrub and began referring to her by a new name: Mommy Milkers, a reference to her breasts. En masse, people spammed the comment sections of AT&T’s social-media posts with lewd declarations and emojis of glasses of milk. The jeering became inescapable for Vayntrub, bleeding into the comments of her personal social-media accounts. Recent posts and years-old ones were targeted. Her personal photos were widely redistributed among strangers. Spammy websites promised access to pornographic videos of her that did not exist. The physical isolation of lockdown exacerbated the experience for Vayntrub. “Our real world was so small,” she said, “that the internet felt like everything.”

I learned of Vayntrub’s social-media gantlet while writing an article about Stephanie Courtney. I had been struck by the placidity of Courtney’s life in the public eye. Progressive’s calculations suggest that Flo is recognizable to a supermajority of Americans; almost equally remarkable is the fact that Flo — or rather Courtney — has avoided becoming an object of rabid pornographic interest online, a not-uncommon fate for women with public-facing roles in the 21st century.

It’s impossible to weight the variables that created this lucky outcome for Courtney but not for Vayntrub. Was it because Courtney was in her late 30s when she began starring as Flo — more than a decade older than Vayntrub in her first appearance as Lily? Was it because, while each character dresses conservatively, Flo’s wardrobe obliterates any trace of curves by sheathing her in a bulky apron? (At a commercial shoot last spring, Courtney’s manager kept a sharp eye on the way the apron hung when Courtney sat, wary that the fabric could create shapes in the chest area.) Perhaps the discrepancy can be put down to the fact that Flo is friendly but intentionally unrealistic, almost magical; Lily, by contrast, is intended to represent a real, live AT&T store employee.

The onslaught could have cost Vayntrub her job; it is not ideal if an advertiser is compelled to scold potential customers for engaging with the content it has paid to show them, as AT&T did in its own comment sections. (“We don’t condone sexual harassment of employees in the workplace or on our social channels,” @ATT replied to an Instagram user who announced a desire to “suck on” Vayntrub’s breasts.) The company released a statement condemning the harassment, worked with social platforms to stanch the flow of inappropriate comments and put Vayntrub in touch with a team from Instagram, to discuss ways to further mitigate the problem.

Courtney, who counts multiple other brand-character actors as friends, contacted Vayntrub by phone while this was happening. Courtney was empathetic; Vayntrub had been chosen, essentially at random, to receive a blitzkrieg of violent and sexual taunts from legions of strangers for doing a job essentially identical to her own. Vayntrub recalled that Courtney was a good listener. And talking to her made Vayntrub feel “like there were people on my team,” she said. Vayntrub addressed the trolls directly on Instagram, asking for more respectful treatment. She was dismayed to see her requests described as “pleading” in media coverage. Such articles portrayed her, she said, as even more of a victim than she thought she was. “Like I was begging a lover to not walk out on me into the pouring rain.”

“I’m just trying to bring a little bit of delight into the TV,” said Vayntrub, who feels “protective” of Lily.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

What I had wanted to understand from Courtney was how a person’s life changed when she shared her likeness with a brand so completely that her face became synonymous with that brand. Courtney described an agreeable trade-off: She has given up anonymity and theoretically infinite — though not necessarily fruitful — creative freedom in exchange for the security of steady, high-paid employment. The flip side of this arrangement is that she is too well known as Flo to be seriously considered for many other projects.

Vayntrub’s association with AT&T is less indelible, and almost certainly less profitable. But her work in the ads has already had tremendous personal consequences. Without Lily, she might never have begun a career directing commercials; she also most likely would not have spent a summer being called Mommy Milkers. In her capacity as a director of some of the spots, Vayntrub could exert control over how she was depicted, framing shots so that her body was even less visible than in previous ads.

When we spoke, I asked Vayntrub if the benefits she derived from lending her likeness to AT&T were enough to outweigh the drawbacks, given what happened. Despite the chasm between her and Courtney’s experience, Vayntrub’s answer was immediate: “One hundred percent.”

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