There’s a fine line between “edgy” and “offensive.” Retailers sometimes have to learn that lesson the hard way, with stores that cater to a young and hip crowd getting in the most trouble. When a retailer shows poor taste, though, the internet responds.
Stores pulled every item of clothing on this list from the shelf following massive public outcry. For some, it’s easy to see why. Others, you might not agree with the controversy. Either way, though, these clothes are definitely controversial. In fact, they’re too controversial for the marketplace.
1. Selling Tragedy
In 1970, nervous Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on a group of Vietnam-war protesters on the campus of Kent State University. The troops took the lives of four students and injured nine others, many of whom were not involved in the protest but merely passing by.
The event was a tragedy that reverberated throughout the culture. Still, Urban Outfitters thought it would be a good idea to sell a $129 sweatshirt bearing the Kent State University logo and apparent imitation blood splatters.
The University issued a statement that summed up the feelings of many consumers who saw this sweatshirt.
“We lost four students that day while nine others were wounded and countless others were changed forever,” said a statement from Kent State University.
“We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit,” the statement continued. “This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State Community today.”
Urban Outfitters responded by suggesting that the whole thing was just a misunderstanding.
“It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such,” the company wrote in a 2014 press release. “This 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.”
Still, they pulled the item from their web store. Only one was sold, Urban Outfitters said, apologizing.
2. Marketing Mental Illness
Oh, Urban Outfitters. Will you never learn?
The same year the retailer landed in hot water for their insensitive Kent State sweatshirt, they also ran afoul of mental health advocates—plus just about anyone decent. They marketed a cute black and white crop top in 2014.
The problem? The shirt was covered with a flippant font spelling out the word “depression” over and over.
“Oh yeah @urbanoutfitters,” tweeted Matt Haig. “Depression is so fun and fashionable. It’s right up there with colon cancer.”
It didn’t take long for the retailer to respond.
“Hey everyone, we hear you and we are taking the shirt down from the site,” Urban Outfitters tweeted in January 2014.
The shirt was never on the shelf in brick-and-mortar stores, they say, and now it’s not available online either. So that’s good.
3. Spreading the Wrong Message
We’re not picking on Urban Outfitters, we swear. It’s just that the ultra-hip retailer keeps creating problems for themselves.
In 2010, Urban Outfitters marketed a sleek gray v-neck shirt. It looks comfortable. Unfortunately, the slogan emblazoned on the shirt upset people who have struggled with eating disorders. “Eat less,” the shirt said.
The model wearing the shirt on the company’s website was, of course, very thin. Critics pointed out that this probably wasn’t the most body-positive move Urban Outfitters could make, and they pulled the shirt from their website. It was still available in stores, reported The Cut in 2010.
Around the same time, Perez Hilton stopped selling a T-shirt that read, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
It seems like 2010 was a big year for the pro-anorexia (often referred to as “pro-ana”) movement; it was also a big year for calling retailers out for trying to profit off of it.
4. Robin Thicke…for Children
Robin Thicke’s 2013 party track “Blurred Lines” might be the most controversial track of the early 2010s. The lyrics seem to “blur the lines” of consent. It certainly didn’t help that the video portrayed three fully-clothed male performers cavorting with scantily clad women.
So it’s not a song you’d associate with, you know, children. Target somehow missed that point when they sold a pint-sized T-shirt portraying My Little Pony’s Rainbow Dash along with the words “Blurred Lines.”
Consumers responded with a Change.org petition asking Target to pull the shirt from their stores. A total of 100 people signed. The T-shirt is no longer available on Target.com, and it’s not likely to come back.
5. No Politics
It doesn’t seem controversial to pull shirts that promote unhealthy lifestyles, misogyny, or insensitivity. But what about complex political issues you may or may not agree with? Sears ran into the gray area of consumer response when they decided they would no longer allow clothing bearing the slogan “Free Palestine” in their online store.
Sears didn’t produce the shirts; they were sold on the Sears Marketplace, an online retailer that allows third-party sellers to reach Sears’ consumers. The shirts, which the Jerusalem Post reports were being sold by a company called Spreadshirt Collection, featured the graphic of a fist in the colors of the Palestinian flag. “End Israeli Occupation,” the shirt also said.
A reporter from the Jerusalem Post contacted Sears about the item. They offered this response:
We will be removing the items soon. Please allow us 24 hours. Thank you for understanding. We do not want our members to be unhappy. This item is sold by a third-party seller via the Sears Marketplace. Given the feedback we’ve received, we are currently evaluating the items in question to determine appropriate action. We will fix it and ensure this is not repeated.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict proved too hot-button a political issue for Sears. They no longer sell “Free Palestine” clothing from Spreadshirt Collection. Meanwhile, Amazon still sells the T-shirt.
6. Uncomfortable Shoes
When fashion designer Jeremy Scott was a kid, he had a toy called My Pet Monster. The stuffed beast came complete with a set of neon-orange shackles, presumably to keep his monstrous impulses under control.
In 2012, Scott collaborated with Adidas to design a pair of sneakers, he said, based on his childhood toy. So he added bright orange shackles. To the sneakers.
That didn’t sit well with Rev. Jesse Jackson, who saw the shoes as an exploitive reference to American slavery.
“The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution, is offensive, appalling, and insensitive,” Jackson wrote in a statement. “Removing the chains from our ankles and placing them on our shoes is no progress.”
Hours after Jackson’s statement, Adidas announced they were canceling the project. Scott denies that the shoes referred to slavery. Still, the shoes were gone before they even arrived.
All of these stories prove the same point: Retailers listen to their customers. If you see a T-shirt that offends you, make some noise. Tweet about it. Find enough people who agree, and you stand a pretty good chance of convincing stores to pull the item from the shelves. In the United States, consumers do have power. The only question is how to use it.