4 crisis lessons from Halloween costume nightmares

Consider these insights from retailers that faced backlash for several costumes that consumers called inappropriate, along with universities looking to stop problems before they happen.

Halloween costumes often show there’s no accounting for taste.

When it comes to avoiding a crisis, however, PR pros might do well to consider consumers’ potential reactions. Doing so could save you from a high-profile headache.

Here are several PR takeaways from retailers’ criticized moves—along with universities that hope to stop costume crises before they start:

1. Update consumer rules, and police your partnerships.

Amazon recently faced backlash for a costume sold through its Marketplace.

The costume, which is still available online through Jokers’ Masquerade, references Paralympian Oscar Pistorius. In 2012, he became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics. He was later convicted of culpable homicide for fatally shooting his girlfriend.

Evening Standard reported:

The original £26.10 costume included a “top, shorts, boot covers and knee pads”. It did not come with the sunglasses or gun pictured but included boot covers to “create the image you have false legs”.

The costume’s shirt is emblazoned with “Blade Gunner”—a play on Pistorius’ nickname, “Blade Runner”:

The Amazon listing said the costume “is sure to cause some controversy at your next event,” International Business Times reported.

Amazon removed the product and issued the following statement:

All Marketplace sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who don’t will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account. The product in question is no longer available.

This crisis is the latest in a series that Amazon has dealt with regarding costumes. Enabling people to sell through its platform carries a risk, which is one brand managers who have similar marketplace offerings or brand ambassador partnerships should remember.

Clearly state your brand guidelines for all who work with you, and monitor influencers’ communications to ensure that an offensive comment or action won’t damage your organization’s reputation.

2. Know where to draw the line.

“Blade Gunner” wasn’t the only costume to provoke criticism from consumers online: Many lashed out at retailers for selling an Anne Frank getup for Halloween.

The BBC reported:

Images shared on social media show the costume was initially advertised on sites such as HalloweenCostumes.com – which uses the Twitter handle @funcostumes – as a “WW2 Anne Frank Girls Costume”.

“Now your child can play the role of a World War Two hero,” the original description reads. “It comes with a blue button-up dress, reminiscent of the kind of clothing that might be worn by a young girl” at the time, it adds.

Carlos Galindo-Elvira, Arizona regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted that there were better ways to commemorate Anne Frank.

“We should not trivialise her memory as a costume,” he wrote.

Others turned to Twitter to criticize retailers that sold the costume:

On Oct. 16, Time reported:

HalloweenCostumes.com removed the costume on Sunday in response to criticism. As of Monday night, the costume appeared to have been removed from Walmart’s website as well, but was still being sold on Amazon .

“We sell costumes not only for Halloween, but for many uses outside of the Halloween season, such as school projects and plays. We offer several types of historically accurate costumes – from prominent figures to political figures, to television characters,” a spokesperson for HalloweenCostumes.com said in a tweet Sunday night, adding that the costume had been removed. “We apologize for any offense it has caused, as that’s never our intention.”

The company also issued the following statement on Twitter:

If your next brainstorming session produces an idea that you think might invite backlash, ask yourself (and your team) whether it’s an idea you actually want to run. When seeking opinions, include a diverse set of backgrounds.

Also remember that for many, products and campaigns that might appear to trivialize tragic, traumatic or politically charged events don’t bode well. Pepsi learned that lesson after it pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner offering a can to a cop during a political protest.

3. Carefully consider sensitive subjects.

Though sexy costumes are nothing new, brand managers might want to avoid certain topics and characters.

Consumers lashed out online at retailers selling an adult costume that depicts “Stranger Things” character, Eleven. The costume—which consists of a shorter and lower-cut version of the character’s iconic pink dress, over-the-knee socks, a blue jacket and an Eggo waffle purse—was criticized for sexualizing a child.

Moviepilot.com reported:

The fact that this particular “sexy” costume was based on a character who’s only 12 years old in the first season of Stranger Things sparked concern and outrage online. Many pointed out that #Eleven is still a child in #Netflix‘s 1980s tribute series; she’ll be 13 years old by the time the events of Season 2 begin.

PopSugar’s Kate Schweitzer wrote:

… She’s a child. A real, live-action child expertly portrayed by then-12-year-old Millie Bobby Brown. Not only that, but the elementary-school-age character is a silent, scared, abused kid with a shaved head and a bloody nose. We do not need a sexy version of this. We just don’t.

One retailer is standing by the costume, which it calls “Upside Down Honey” (a reference to the dark and monster-ruled parallel universe in “Stranger Things”).

ABC News reported:

One retailer selling the costume, Yandy Lingerie and Costume Company, told ABC News in a statement, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously and neither do our customers.”

“The Yandy girl strives to be the talk of the Halloween party,” the company statement said. “And we’ve found these topical, pop culture inspired costumes with a fashion-forward twist are always a fan favorite year after year.”

Costumes don’t have to be sexy to elicit backlash, either. Last year, Disney removed a “Moana” costume from stores after consumers called it racist.

Though some retailers might consider any publicity good publicity, brand managers would do well to avoid products and marketing campaigns that could be construed as inappropriate, such as Brazilian company Santher’s recent “Black is Beautiful” ad.

If you decide to go with controversial elements or messages in your next launch, have your crisis communications plan ready.

4. Set boundaries, and counsel your staff and clients.

The best way to avoid a backlash over a Halloween costume is to not venture into controversial territory.

Southern Utah University recently launched a campaign aimed at increasing discussion and awareness of what costumes might be insensitive.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

A series of posters, launched online and around SUU’s campus on Friday by the school’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion, shows diverse SUU students holding photos of racially and culturally insensitive outfits, under the tagline “My Culture is not a Costume.”

Other universities across the nation have also upped their efforts to crack down on potentially offensive costumes. Some schools banned certain outfits, but other academic communicators distributed information, offered workshops and launched campaigns similar to SUU’s to increase conversations about cultural sensitivity.

PR pros outside of the academia can use similar messages in their own organizations and with clients.

Your counsel can (and probably should) extend to Halloween marketing messages, appropriate social media behavior and general media training guidelines. It’s never a bad time to brush up on reputation management basics to help your organization or client steer clear of a crisis.

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