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#PRFAIL: There Are Some Jokes That Will Always Be “Too Soon”

Urban outfitters - The Kent State Shirt

Making light of a tragic event is nothing new. I mean, there’s plenty of jokes about the Titanic’s and Abraham Lincoln’s fates to go around. They may not be the most tasteful, but even amateur comedians understand what it means to “go too far” when joking about tragedies.

Apparently clothing retailer Urban Outfitters didn’t get that memo when they debuted their new “Kent State” sweatshirt. They’ll later claim it wasn’t in jest as you’ll see but…

The sweatshirt was adorned with the Kent State University logo (innocent enough) but with an additional…decorative element – what appeared to be “blood splatter.”1 (Oh, my…)

For those of you not familiar with the reference, on May 4, 1970, a National Guard unit fired on Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War on campus, killing four and wounding nine others – a horrible tragedy (and not humorous in the slightest!)

So why Urban Outfitters thought their design was somehow funny is truly mystifying. Of course, they were very wrong – people were NOT amused.

As you might expect nowadays, people were outraged, and they took to social media. Over and over again, they pointed out this very obvious (intentional or not) design “coincidence” and gave Urban Outfitters a series of history lessons and criticism for their tastelessness.

Some outstanding comments included:

“Hey @UrbanOutfitters, thanks for proving that History classes are actually important. Ignorance is not bliss.”

“Urban Outfitters explores the outer reaches of bad taste.”

And those are some of the polite ones.

But most poignant would be Kent State University’s rightful statement on Twitter: “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.” 2

What Urban Outfitters did next didn’t exactly help matters.

In their (ahem) apology, the clothing company issued the following via Twitter:

“Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State…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…. Again, we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively and we have removed it immediately from our website to avoid further upset.”3

Now, if we’re to take their official explanation as honest and forthcoming, I would challenge them to find any other article of clothing in their catalog with a University logo and similar “discoloration”, ‘cause they made no mention…

Oh, by the way, the product description on their website included the phrase, “Get it or regret it!” (Not helping your case, people).

Whether Urban Outfitters was actually being transparent here (read: innocent mistake) or trying to save face by lying, the media got them the kind of coverage no one wants – the negative kind:

Washington Post: Urban Outfitters apologizes for its blood-red-stained Kent State sweatshirt

The Atlantic: Urban Outfitters Pretends ‘Bloodied’ Kent State Sweatshirt Was Just ‘Vintage’

Time: Urban Outfitters: ‘We Understand How Our Sincerity May Be Questioned’

Huffington Post: Urban Outfitters Hits New Low With Faux Blood-Stained Kent State Sweatshirt

(Looks like nobody bought Urban Outfitter’s story, huh?)

Who would?! This is a mistake on top of another mistake. And something you should never do. Ever known someone who obviously screwed up and then tried to explain it away at length? It’s just embarrassing and makes a bad situation worse. The public always knows when you’re lying.

The icing on this terrible cake – they also unintentionally (how ironic) implied their audience was in the wrong!

Of course, I’m always looking at these kinds of blunders from a PR perspective – did Urban Outfitters take the opportunity to make amends for their bad judgement (and maybe their lack of comedic skill)?

Nope. They just dug themselves a deeper hole.

 

When I speak to clients who are having a PR problem, I stress delicacy in how you handle the fallout. Maybe Urban Outfitters panicked (which happens a lot) and that lead to a hurried statement, but it’s ultimately on them for not thinking things through – not having a plan in place for situations like these.

Regardless, PR isn’t a reaction – it’s a proactive, planned approach that puts you ahead of any crisis by establishing your reputation and goodwill beforehand. Trust me, we’ll all face a “bad situation” someday, – but you can be well-prepared for it.

 

Be proactive today and give me a call. | 888-919-4034

 

Sources:

  1. Smoking Gun. “7 scarily bad Halloween PR campaign failures”, smokinggunpr.co.uk/2019/10/30/halloween-pr-campaign-failures/ viewed October 02, 2020
  2. Broder Van Dyke, Michelle. “Urban Outfitters Features ‘Vintage’ Red-Stained Kent State Sweatshirt”, BuzzFeedNews, buzzfeednews.com/article/mbvd/urban-outfitters-features-vintage-red-stained-kent-state-swe, September 14, 2014
  3. Tuder, Stefanie. “Urban Outfitters Apologizes for Insensitive Kent State Sweatshirt Sale”, ABCNews.com, abcnews.go.com/Lifestyle/urban-outfitters-apologizes-insensitive-kent-state-sweatshirt-sale/story?id=25514185, September 15, 2014

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