Offensive Marketing: Urban Outfitters and Others Use Controversy to Grab Headlines

They say that even bad press is good press because it gets people talking about you and your issue. However, public relations experts should know better. Case in point is the clothing controversy involving Urban Outfitters. The company was selling a Kent State University sweatshirt that looks as if it’s blood spattered. For those of you who are too young to remember, (me included,) on May 4, 1970 a sniper protesting the Vietnam War shot and killed four students and wounded another nine.

Perhaps because the Kent State shootings took place over forty years ago they felt as if enough time had passed, but poor taste is poor taste. As a public school teacher I can attest that this kind of clothing would warrant at the very least being sent home to change clothes. Between the horror at Virginia Tech and the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut any allusion to school shootings at any time is unacceptable.

The company had released an official statement that states,  “It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such … There is no blood on this shirt nor has this item been altered in any way. The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.” While the sweatshirt has now been pulled from sales, it’s selling at outrageous prices on EBay. Apparently poor taste is expensive. One would think that given the bad press that Zara has received in recent weeks, companies would be hyper-sensitive to such situations.

Zara’s controversy involves a $22 dollar t-shirt.  It’s a box cut, striped with dull blue and white with a six point Star of David in yellow over the chest pocket.  It’s almost identical to the shirts that victims in concentration camps were forced to wear during WWII.  (The star does say “Sherriff” but c’mon.  Really?)  

August 27th was the first day the shirt was available in stores and it brought with it a barrage of angry patrons.   The clothing store giant responded by pulling the item immediately from both the stores and their website.  They claimed that the sales were “marginal” and that they were unaware that the shirt was offensive.  They stated that they had intended to make the shirt look like one of the Old West and that it was not their intention to make any connection to the Holocaust.

A likely story… because in 2007, Zara was in trouble again for anti-Semitic symbols.  A handbag they designed featured Swastikas embroidered all over it.  Zara defended this saying that their designers were in India, and they sometimes use ancient Hindu symbols in their decorations.  In defense of Zara, the bag was in fact designed differently than the original design, but they still made it out onto the shelves and the website for sale.

Sounds like two strikes to me…

People love to push the envelope as to what is considered bad taste. At what point does it stop being funny or edgy and it crosses over into just insensitive and obtuse? Abercrombie and Fitch came under fire ten years ago for their slogan t-shirt, “It’s all relative in West Virginia,” and even the birthday boy, Prince Harry came into the spotlight with his Nazi costume. Is it planned to get a reaction? Do companies truly believe they never meant to insult anyone? Like I said, bad press is good press.