Urban Outfitters offends with red-stained ‘vintage’ Kent State sweatshirt

Is the clothier continually applying a tin ear to its marketing decisions? Or is its appalling tastelessness deliberate—just to make a buck—and deserving of a coverage blockout?

Urban Outfitters seems bent on marketing via bad taste.

Not having been content with previous clothing references to Nazi concentration camps and the stigma of depression, it was called out over the weekend for selling a “vintage” Kent State sweatshirt that evoked the 1970 campus shootings.

The description of the apparently blood-spattered shirt included this message: “We only have one, so get it or regret it!”

Soon after Buzzfeed pointed out the $129 shirt and its offensiveness, the item was sold out on Urban Outfitter’s website. It then made an appearance on eBay before the listing was taken down.

Many took to Twitter to voice their opinions:

Kent State University officials responded on the institution’s website; it reads, in part:

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.

The retailer swiftly responded with the following statement:

Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes of 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 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.

The lessons for most PR pros are clear:

1. Think before you act. Consider in advance the implications of your decisions. A little forethought can save many headaches.

McDonald’s, for example, hoping to inspire heart-warming tales of its Happy Meals, created the hashtag #McDStories and then paid to promote it on Twitter. It didn’t take long for people to overtake the campaign with horror stories about the brand. Although McDonald’s pulled the campaign after two hours, the hashtag trended on Twitter for several hours after. If McDonald’s PR team had thought upfront about this possible outcome, the campaign probably would never have launched.

2. Know—and respect—history. Make sure your staff knows current and historical events that could in any way damage your brand:

Some months ago, American Outfitters issued an apology after a social media employee re-posted a picture of the Challenger explosion on Tumblr , using it as a celebratory Independence Day post. In the statement, brand managers attributed the mistake to a foreign employee who was born after the tragedy occurred. Few bought that excuse.

3. Actually apologize in an apology. The statement above is nothing more than a shift of responsibility: “…we deeply regret that this item was perceived negatively.” So, the entire Internet envisioned blood spatters rather than discoloration and holes from “natural wear and fray.” Be upfront and honest in your apologies, and be ready to take responsibility.

Digiorno’s recent social media fail was met with a quick apology sent from the brand’s Twitter account as well, but the apology was notably candid. Several people recognized the “non-PR” apology and commended the social media manager for it. An apology can go a long way, as long as it’s sincere.

What do you think, readers? Is Urban Outfitters deliberately playing the online audience for the cheapest of publicity? Has it earned a coverage/commentary blackout?

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