September 16, 2014

The Kent State Massacre Sweatshirt: How Far Did Urban Outfitters Really Go?

“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.”

— Urban Outfitters company statement

Of course Urban Outfitter’s apology for its Kent State Massacre Sweatshirt is a bald-faced lie. What we have above is something far more ambitious — an apology to the charge of selling a shirt with original blood and bullet holes. Just the copy in the original ad: “get it or regret it!”, with its tone of “must-have, with consequences” is an SOS call for any copywriter with an eraser.

I hate to say this but this incident doesn’t speak to how insensitive and clueless this outfit is, but how callous and opportunistic. Reading through the backgrounders yesterday, you’ll see (to the detriment of Black, Hispanics, Indians, Jews, Public Radio, and the like) what an amoral citizen UO is. Simply, it’s the Rush Limbaugh of clothing retailers. If there is anything you can say about this blasphemy yesterday, it’s that the company, in its marketing focus on the reptile brain, has been remarkably consistent. I’m sure if Urban Outfitters felt they could have gotten away with offering a stained James Foley jump suit, they would have. It’s a business with an amoral compass. In fact, the one thing that isn’t farfetched or outrageous — UO deigning to wrap this bloody rag around an iconic American political tragedy after the summer we’ve endured and as heads continue to be lopped off — is to view Urban Outfitters as the Islamic State of retailers right now. Because, when it comes to violence, blasphemy and the visual aid as a tool for doing business, ISIS has certainly been a trendsetter.

If we were only talking about “who,” though, the conversation would hardly be worth it. So let’s talk about “when.” If the Kent State Massacre Sweatshirt wasn’t “inspired” by all the killing and the representation of killing around us right now, it certainly leads us there. Appearing at the exact time the news and photo industry and the public, too, is torn and torn up over the representation of graphic violence and what’s informative versus exploitive (not too mention, what simply gets censored as being too close to home), this charming item couldn’t have touched a more sensitive nerve.

And that leads me to the most critical point here, which is how disingenuous much of the outrage is. We live in a culture and a media culture (from our defense industry and our national security complex, to our media and entertainment and sports industrial complex) that is not only steeped in violence but keeps expanding the boundary of what and how much. We can all wag our fingers at Urban Outfitters while others feed the diet in slightly more ambiguous ways. We can all wag our fingers, but the sphere wouldn’t be the sphere without its pirates and villains (and that’s not mentioning our facilitation of the company’s biggest brand ID day in history). At the same time — whether we’re talking about products or media — brand competition goes hand in hand with the mania for buzz, controversy and the dark side, provocation being a standard implement in the toolkit. It’s not that UO did anything we don’t see elements of every single day. They just blew past that exit on the cultural highway where most get off to discomfort people and objectify violence.

(update: edited title to remove reference to ISIS. Removed last sentence.)

(photo: Urban Outfitters)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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