Urban Issues: Urban Outfitters’ Kent State Controversy

by Mia Merrill '18 The inflammatory blood-spattered sweatshirt Urban Outfitters designed.

If anyone knows scandals, it’s the management and publicity team for Urban Outfitters. They’ve got it down to a science: when the time is right to release a controversial product, when to pull it off the shelves, and when to publish some sort of half-apology aimed more at their costumers’ wallets than their hearts. Earlier this week, Urban Outfitters revealed a “vintage” inspired Kent State University sweatshirt in faded red with blood spots and apparent bullet holes. The sweatshirt was one-of-a-kind – there was literally only one made, but one was all it took to spread like wildfire on the web. Blogs, gossip columns, and reputable news sources alike raised their pitchforks and went after the company, which was almost certainly the reaction Urban executives wanted.

In case your high school history class didn’t cover counterculture and the Vietnam War, or you’ve never heard the song “Ohio,” on May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire at a Kent State student protest. The police officers killed four students and caused another to become paralyzed. So Urban producing a red, bloodstained, tattered Kent State sweatshirt, even if it was a limited-time auction item, is unspeakably saddening and pathetic. The shooting may have been almost thirty-five years ago, but not even two years have yet passed since the Sandy Hook shooting. Remembrances of the Virginia Tech and UC Santa Barbara shootings still make our culture quake. When Urban tries to turn these tragedies into profits, they essentially say to all of their consumers who have been affected by mass shootings, “So what?”

Urban Outfitters doesn’t care so much that consumers were offended by the Kent State sweatshirt though, or by the yellow T-shirt they released with a patchwork Star of David eerily similar to those that Jews were forced to wear during World War II, or by their greeting card that made use of a discriminatory gendered term known as the “t-slur,” or by their culturally appropriative designs co-opted from Navajo artwork that violated trademarks held by Navajo leaders. Urban cares that consumers are talking about these products at all.

You don’t have to be a marketing expert to realize that every offensive move Urban pulls is merely a publicity stunt. It’s hard enough to sell to a target group of teenagers obsessed with defining their identity as ‘hipster’ or their culture as ‘ironic,’ but throw in a barely recovering economy, and it makes sense why Urban may need a scandal to stay relevant. Whether we like it or not, and whether we shop there or not, Urban Outfitters has been on our minds this week, inching its way back into the public profile. You also don’t have to be an ethical expert to know that what Urban Outfitters repeatedly does is pretty wrong.

So, what are we supposed to do about any of these controversies? The answer is simple, but nobody likes hearing it. Don’t shop at Urban Outfitters. Don’t shop at Free People or Anthropologie either, because all of these stores are owned and operated by the same company, Urban Outfitters, Inc. Sure, your thirty dollars here and there may not make too much of a difference in the market, but your long-term choices will. Let it be enough that Urban Outfitters always finds a way to make sure that we’re thinking about them – don’t let them find a way to make sure that we’re the ones funding their next big scandal.

Skidmore Rumors

Field Hockey climbs to third