Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Arizona, participated in a marketing campaign for watchmaker Breitling that the company later admitted was outdated and sexist.
Kelly worked as a brand ambassador for the Swiss watchmaker starting in 2011 after he used the company’s watches in space. The arrangement ended shortly after Kelly began running for Senate in 2019. At the time, Breitling frequently deployed scantily clad models at its stores and in advertising, which drew fire from female pilots.
A spokesman for Kelly’s Senate campaign said he was pleased the company abandoned the marketing and advertising strategy.
“Mark used their watches during his shuttle missions, and they worked well for him, which is why he decided to work with the company. He thinks it’s right that they have changed their advertising practices,” campaign spokesman Jacob Peters said.
During his run against GOP Sen. Martha McSally, Republicans repeatedly attacked Kelly’s post-NASA career as an investor, speaker and marketer. McSally’s campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads blasting Kelly as a sellout.
“Mark Kelly’s willing participation in this type of blatantly sexist marketing campaign is gross, and his refusal to apologize further proves he hasn’t learned his lesson,” McSally communications director Caroline Anderegg said in an email. “Arizonans deserve a leader like Martha McSally who has been a pioneer for women and girls, not a sleezy salesman who enables the objectification of women and will do anything to make a quick buck.”
(McSally has not been critical of President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault and walking into the dressing rooms of beauty pageants he owned while contestants were undressed. In 2018, she said Trump was a role model.)
The attacks so far have had little effect on the race. Public polling shows Kelly with a consistent lead over McSally, an Air Force veteran and the first American woman to fly in combat. A Kelly victory is essential to Democratic hopes of winning Senate control in November.
Breitling has long-standing ties to aviation and aerospace communities and Kelly was far from the only astronaut to wear and pitch the company’s watches. The company has ties to NASA dating back to the 1950s, when it created a watch with a 24-hour dial for astronaut Scott Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth. Carpenter would later appear in advertisements for the company.
Financial disclosures filed with the Senate showed Breitling paid Kelly at least $5,000 to serve as a celebrity endorser in 2017 and 2018. Much of Kelly’s work for the company was noncontroversial: He gave interviews to GQ Australia and Seattle Magazine about how great Breitling’s watches are.
But at other times, Kelly took part in events featuring scantily clad models in pilot and flight attendant uniforms, part of a marketing strategy the Financial Times once dubbed “shamelessly sexist” and Forbes Magazine said was “Trump-like.” The brand threw parties at a trade show featuring topless female DJs and caused a stir in the British press for putting a busty female mannequin atop a missile in shop windows. (Kelly did not attend the trade show party.)
Kelly’s participation in the campaign came mostly at Breitling events: Local media outlets and trade publications showed him posing with models at events in New York City in 2012, in Miami in 2015, again in New York in 2016 and in San Francisco in 2017.
Breitling switched marketing strategies in 2018, when a new CEO arrived and decided to clean up the company’s image.
“I stopped them immediately,” CEO Georges Kern told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung in 2018, according to Reuters. “Some customers thought they were funny. But such clips were no longer suitable and do not reflect values of today’s society.”
Mireille Goyer, the founder of the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide, criticized Breitling’s marketing strategy and called it an “unwelcomed step backward” for the aviation industry, which spent decades discriminating against female pilots. She said it was important for Kelly and his opponent to work to change the culture of aviation and to lay out plans to address gender discrimination.
“Culture is blinding. It may seem ‘normal’ to a Navy guy like Mark Kelly to see women used as sex objects to grab men’s attention as it may seem ‘normal’ to an Air Force gal like Martha McSally to be referred as an ‘airman,’” Goyer said in an email to HuffPost. “We believe that change can only occur when the culture, not the people, is denounced and replaced.”