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Why Urban Outfitters wants to piss you off

This season's hottest look is Internet backlash.


S.E. Smith


Posted on Sep 18, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 1:53 pm CDT

Open Twitter on any given day, these days, and it feels like you’ll be launched head-on into yet another controversy over a company selling offensive garments, like Zara’s concentration camp-themed toddler shirtUrban Outfitters’ bloody Kent State sweatshirt, and Abercrombie’s sexist shirts claiming boobs are better than brains. It’s starting to feel as though major retailers are trolling us as a business strategy—and that it’s working, because otherwise, it wouldn’t be such a persistent issue. Is it possible that the Internet actually birthed this monster, rather than being a tool for killing it?

The pattern retailers tend to painstakingly cut goes like this: They release a product that’s fairly obviously going to be found offensive. The Internet reacts. The retailer issues a lukewarm apology. The Internet reacts to that. A few weeks later, the controversy subsides. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Retailers are not entirely clueless and do learn lessons when products are criticized. But at this point, it’s safe to say that companies like Abercrombie, Old Navy, Zara, and Urban Outfitters are well aware of what they’re doing when they release these productsthe question isn’t if they could have predicted the controversy but why they’re releasing them in the first place. The answer to that lies partially in the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” (retailers are getting media attention that draws new customers and therefore win), partially in the particularly reactive nature of the Internet, and also partially in that very special market sector of people who actively delight in being “politically incorrect.”

Writing for Time, Jacob Davidson pins down the logic of using offensive content to market to millenials:

Another factor that may reward an offend-first strategy is that millennials, Urban Outfitters’ core demographic, are especially difficult to reach because they’re constantly bombarded with stimulation and advertising. According [to] Yarrow, it may take something truly shocking to break through all of the noise. A bloodstained sweater referencing an event most young people only vaguely know about might be what it takes to bring the Urban Outfitters brand to the forefront.

Shockvertising is big business, and it’s not a surprise to see the same strategy brought not just to promotions and campaigns, but actual products. Advertising consultants and firms recommend cutting through the increasing clutter of the digital world if companies want to actually reach their target market. And, of course, companies are encouraged to develop ads that reach the demographic they want to hiteven if other demographics find those ads offensive and irritating.

[Jonny Watson] rates highly the ’fcuk’ work, by TBWA GGT Simons Palmer. ’The French Connection ads polarised opinion,’ he says. ’If you were part of the French Connection target market, you liked the adsif you weren’t, you didn’t.’

That’s the demographic that delights in titillation, in pushing the envelope, in being “non-PC,” sometimes even aggressively so. Offensive bumper stickers, T-shirts, and other gear are made not just to excite public commentary, but because people are interested in buying them precisely because they’re offensivefor shock value, to irritate friends and family members or to express group solidarity with people who share similar attitudes and beliefs.

Thus a “hands off my gun” shirt with a target focused on the United Nations logo, or the infamous crosshairs advertisement used by the Palin campaign. A “joke” featuring a grenade as a ticket machine for the complaint department (“take a number,” pull the pin). A racist caricature of Obama as a witch doctor. On the flip side, an “I aborted Jesus on my way to the gay bar” shirt speaks up for the liberal point of view. The buyers and wearers of this gear are well aware that some will find it offensive: That’s the whole point.

Stores like Urban Outfitters are in part trying to hit that demographic, those who relish a little hipster racism and other hipster-isms in their daily livesthe same people who wear headdresses and sport blackface at parties. Enter an Urban Outfitters store and once you accustom yourself to the unpleasant taste in music, a simple perusal will reveal a broad assortment of appropriative as well as offensive itemsthat’s what the store sells to the demographic it is targeting. (Notably, the store has also been accused of violating artists’ copyright on numerous occasions.)

But there’s something more going on here. Advertisers have always tried to shock to stand out from the crowd, and there’s always been a demographic of individuals who love to offend. It’s the Internet, though, that has turned this from an acknowledged phenomenon to a juggernaut, because the Internet is a live wire of reflexive reactivity, at times, an outrage machine that feeds the corporate hunger for publicity.

The Internet has brought about the ability to widely disseminate information about the terrible things people do to each other in the world, turning the world in many ways into a much smaller place. It’s also become a place of vibrant discussion and commentary, as well as activism and organizing around important causes. But this also has a dark side, in the form of the unrelenting and often disproportionate reflexive responses to offense, in which everything seems equally evil.

There’s a significant difference between, for example, a virulently transphobic screed that receives national syndication and a racist T-shirt at a retailer. Both are offensive. Both are not acceptable. Both perpetuate stereotypes and harm the targeted populations. Requesting a reevaluation and retraction of both is a reasonable course of action but treating them as identical in terms of impact is dubious, at best.

When writers rail against “the transgendered” (yes, this is a different transphobic op-edand yes, transphobia is just this popular in opinion sections of major papers) in the pages of national publications widely read by a mixed audience, that has serious implications for the future of how the trans community is treated in the U.S. When a company known for producing offensive material sells another offensive T-shirt as part of their business strategy, the way people respond to that has tremendous implications.

As the Internet expresses outrage and horror over an offensive op-ed, it sends a message to the ombudsman of the paper and to society in general that such language will not and should not be tolerated. It also creates an opportunity for educating society at large about trans issuesan example of the Internet’s outrage turned to good use. It’s outrage that could be possibly be turned to a good cause, like getting a paper to reconsider its language, monitor pieces about marginalized communities more closely, or even fire a repeat offender.

On the flip side, however, drawing attention to a publicity stunt (for this is, effectively, what actions like Urban Outfitters’ are) feeds in to exactly what the company wants: an increased media profile, more attention, and customers who appreciate the reminder that the company still exists and is still selling the usual assortment of offensive gear.

Has the Internet unwittingly contributed to the perpetuation of offensive products by ensuring that every time one is spotted in the wild, a prolonged response stretching across multiple media platforms will ensue, providing free media saturation and brand exposure for potential and returning customers? Shockvertising is no longer just about grabbing the attention of the individual consumer, after all: It’s about sparking a debate that keeps the ad in the public eye long after the campaign should have gone dark.

Maybe if the Internet stopped showing up for the metaphorical party held every time a retailer releases an offensive shirt, they’d lose the incentive to do so. 

Photo via Finntastic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 18, 2014, 11:00 am CDT