What’s the Value of Shock PR? Urban Outfitters Appears to Mock Kent State Massacre

screen_shot_20140915_at_9.58.20_am.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge.58.20_amThe conventional wisdom is that there's no such thing as bad PR. If you're being talked about, there's business value. And anyway, you can always apologize for your transgressions later, right?

When you write about PR, you come to realize that this question can be asked, and answered, every day, often more than once, as misguided, or dumb, or shrewd marketers get themselves in the news and generate predictable outrage.

The latest example is Urban Outfitters, which this past the weekend started selling a "vintage" Kent State sweatshirt. The garment is faded red, with splotches of dark red. They're easily interpreted as blood, which would be a tasteless reference to the 1970 massacre at the university, where National Guard troops opened fire on student protesters, killing four and wounding nine other students. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds of ammunition in 13 seconds.

Maybe some Urban Outfitters designer thought it would be funny to have a blood-stained Kent State sweatshirt. Maybe he thought it would sell. Maybe the designer never considered whether a garment referring to gunned-down college students is clever.

Naturally, the company issued an apology yesterday. Naturally, it claimed it was all just a misunderstanding.

"It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970," the company stated. "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."

Is shock value PR really good PR?

  • Laura Richards

    Kent’s colors are blue and gold. Why would you make a red Kent sweatshirt? It is exactly what we thought it was, and they trivialized our reactions by claiming it wasn’t. I’m all for making a name for yourself, but this is not the way to do it.