The recent controversy surrounding Urban Outfitters due to their incredibly distasteful Kent State shirt will probably go down in history and textbooks on public relations management and product design. It’s the perfect example of a product release that should have never been.
Screenshots captured by Twitter users depict the shirt that caused ripples of outrage across social media and news websites. The apparel in question was a long-sleeved shirt marked with holes, stained with red faux blood spatter, and emblazoned with the Kent State University logo across the center. For many, the gristly shirt brings to mind the terrible tragedy that took place on the Kent State campus in 1970, when the U.S. National Guard opened fire and killed four peaceful protesters.
Urban Outfitters quickly pulled the offensive shirt, once it began making the rounds on social media. However, the damage was already done. Kent State University released their own criticism of the clothing company in a statement released on September 15. The statement contained a stern reminder of the tragedy, during which the university “lost four students that day while nine others were wounded and countless others were changed forever.”
Kent State officials decried the Urban Outfitters t-shirt release, remarking, “We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit.” Members of the Kent State community rallied at the May 4 Visitors Center located in Taylor Hall on campus. According to Kent Wired, a student-run publication, professors, faculty, and students visited this memorial center to reflect on the tragedy and also voice their own criticisms about the Urban Outfitters shirts.
Urban Outfitters released an official apology on their Twitter account on the same day Kent State University issued their criticism. According to the company, they did not design the shirt to intentionally evoke memories of the Kent State tragedy. When it comes to the blood-like stains, Urban Outfitters states, “The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt and the holes are from natural wear and fray.” However, the aesthetic seemed far too coincidental for many social media users, who replied to the tweet with their displeasure.
Urban Outfitters went on to release an extended explanation and apology, which has been reprinted by Time Magazine. They claim that the Kent State shirt was part of a limited run collection, and maintain that the stains were a result of “natural fading and sun exposure.” However, the statement acknowledged, “This truth does not excuse us from our failure to identify potential controversial products head on.”
It’s hard to tell whether this extended apology will appease communities online and at Kent State, especially since Urban Outfitters is infamous for selling other highly controversial shirts. In 2010, the company received media criticism regarding race after online shirt inventory appeared with the color labels “White/Charcoal” and “Obama/Black.”
That same year, Urban Outfitters was hit with additional criticism after releasing shirts with the slogan “Eat Less,” since this could push impressionable youngsters toward eating disorders. With a track record like this, it’s no surprise that consumers are wary of the recent Kent State controversy.