I'm From Ohio. This Is Not OK.
Urban Outfitters sold a "bloody," hole-filled "vintage" Kent State University sweatshirt until Monday. While it's possible some Americans may not know about Kent State, the massacre is burned into my mind and I wasn't even alive when it happened.
In 1970, four unarmed students who had been protesting the Vietnam War were gunned down by Ohio National Guard troops who fired into the crowd. So many iconic images and enduring songs resulted from the shootings that employees at Urban Outfitters shouldn't have even had to open a history book to understand why selling that sweatshirt was offensive. Then there's also the fact that the company is based in Philadelphia—in a state that shares a border with Ohio.
Selling the garment may seem like a strange decision for a company with publicly traded stock to make, but it's not unusual for Urban Outfitters. And Urban Outfitters isn't alone.
In August, Spain's Zara had to pull off the market a "sheriff's" shirt that looked remarkably like apparel Nazis forced Jews to wear in the World War II concentration camps. It may also be difficult for Zara to claim ignorance of anti-Semitism because of, well, the Spanish Inquisition.
So, for the record, Urban Outfitters and Zara apologized for selling the offending apparel.
"Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused," @UrbanOutfitters tweets at 10:01 a.m. Monday on TwitLonger. "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. The one-of-a-kind item was purchased as part of our sun-faded vintage collection. 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. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset."
@Zara's Aug. 27 tweet didn't even acknowledge the blue stripes on the shirt that were reminiscent of concentration camp prisoner uniforms. "@n_rothschild We honestly apologize, it was inspired by the sheriff's stars from the Classic Western films and is no longer in our stores."
So for future creative efforts, brands like Urban Outfitters and Zara may want to remember:
- SeaWorld's stock plummeted 33 percent after "Blackfish";
- Target Corp.'s shares fell 8 percent in the second half of 2013 after a massive data breach; and
- GM shares dropped 16 percent in 2014 following vehicle recalls.
Urban Outfitters shares were down 1 percent as of presstime on Monday. (A Time article looks at Urban as a serial offender, though, and says being controversial is good for the bottom line, citing the clothier's $811 million in sales during Q2 2014. The figures include sales from all of its brands—Anthropologie, Bhldn, Free People, Terrain and Urban Outfitters.)
2. There's a Difference Between Tasteless and Offensive. Taking pictures of ugly food is tasteless. Offensive is just one adjective viewers of the news-breaking BuzzFeed article used to describe the Kent State sweatshirt.
Here's what Kent State thought of Urban Outfitter's choice: "May 4, 1970, was a watershed moment for the country and especially the Kent State family. We lost four students that day while nine others were wounded and countless others were changed forever. We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit. This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today. We invite the leaders of this company, as well as anyone who invested in this item, to tour our May 4 Visitors Center, which opened two years ago, to gain perspective on what happened 44 years ago and apply its meaning to the future."
3. Learn From History or doom consumers to relive it, as Urban Outfitters continues to do. The January 2010 "Obama/Black" T-shirt color option comes to mind.
4. Hire a Diverse Workforce. You can't repeatedly claim ignorance and do nothing to stop it from happening again. Urban Outfitters has been making the same mistakes since 2003. You know what might stop it from happening again? Someone in the office saying, "That's offensive to me. Here's why … " If you already have a diverse workforce yet you persist in putting out offensive products and claiming ignorance, maybe you're not listening to your staffers.
What do you think?
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