How to profit off provoking others

Illustration by Shannon Wright

Victoria Zawitkowski
Contributing Columnist

It only cost $129 to own a holeridden, blood-splattered sweatshirt from Urban Outfitters with “Kent State University” across the front. Trivializing the four deaths and nine wounded in the 1970 massacre? Priceless.

On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a demonstration of unarmed students at KSU. Around 600 people had gathered for an anti-war protest following the Nixon administration’s bombing of Cambodia. Four students were killed and another nine were injured.

Urban Outfitters put up the controversial “Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt” on their website on Sept. 15. After the uproar amongst social media users and objections from KSU, the company listed the item as sold out. There is now an eBay account listing the sweatshirt at a starting bid of $550, or you can buy-it-now for $2,500. In the description the seller promises 50 percent of the profits will go to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Urban Outfitters issued an apology to those offended and said it was not their intention to allude to the Kent State massacre. The sweatshirt, Urban Outfitters said, was worn and faded which produced the red discoloration and the holes. They claim these details were not intended to be bullet holes or blood. However, as quickly as the rest of the country noticed this tasteless piece of clothing, it’s curious that it surpassed the entire company’s quality checks.

The sweater’s resemblance to an inappropriate joke of a Halloween costume may or may not have been intentional, but this is not their first fashion faux pas.

Urban Outfitters has been under fire for several other clothing items including a shirt with the phrase “Eat Less,” a striped T-shirt with a six-pointed star that was reminiscent of concentration camp uniforms and a line of Navajo clothing that was at best an example of cultural appropriation and at worst blatant racism.

A shirt encouraging people to “Eat Less,” while not very socially responsible, is not breaking any laws. As Americans, we have been granted the freedom to dress as we please, even if that clothing conveys a certain message.

In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional for students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. Restricting that would be a violation of their freedom of expression. In 1969, black armbands were considered potentially offensive and unconstitutional. In 2014 we see clothing with profanity, sexual innuendo, political messages, racism and now the trivialization of tragedies. The companies that produce these clothing items are not out to prove their freedoms, but are in the pursuit of profit.

NASDAQ reported that Urban Outfitters, Inc., which owns several retail stores including Urban Outfitters, made $811 million in sales last quarter. This is after several publicity-generating clothing choices that offended the public. Urban Outfitters has no reason to be more careful about the messages they are sending when the community is still buying their products.

Fashion is a form of self-expression protected by the First Amendment. The need to defend and prove that freedom, or generate a higher profit, takes the front seat to the discomfort people may feel as a result of the message.

While I do not dispute our freedom to dress and express ourselves, the attitude has shifted. Merchandisers are not using the First Amendment to protect themselves. They are using it to provoke and profit off of others.

I would not want a popular retail company encouraging my children to have an eating disorder and then collecting the earnings from that message. These shirts are not meant to serve as a vehicle for self-expression. They are to elicit a reaction from those that are forced to read them. In short, they’re offensive.

Regardless of the intention Urban Outfitters had in the creation of their KSU sweatshirt, the effect remains the same. An eBay user is attempting to sell the sweatshirt for more than the original price, and Urban Outfitters has likely gained several million clicks to their website in the process. Another company to profit from the misfortune of others.

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