With Kent State Shirt, Did Urban Outfitters Finally Go Too Far?

Experts Divided: One Says Shock Value May Be Wearing Thin, Other Calls it 'On-Brand'

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Urban Outfitters may sell stationery that says, "I do what I want," but its often defiant and irreverent products have gotten it in trouble again.

The millennial-oriented chain, which mostly sells clothing, riled the public with a sweatshirt that looked to many as if it showed splotches of blood over the crest of Kent State University, where four students were shot to death at a 1970 anti-war protest.

Urban Outfitters said the red spots are simply part of the vintage look of the shirt, but predictably it touched off an enraged wave of criticism. "We take great offense to a company using our pain for their publicity and profit," Kent State wrote in a statement on its website on Monday. "This item is beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community today."

By late this morning, Urban Outfitters had posted an apology on its Twitter account and assured users it had removed the shirt from its website.

"Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused," the post said. "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."

Despite the apology, users took to Twitter, mostly to express condemnation or pledges to avoid the store.

The sincerity of Urban Outfitters, which has provoked controversy again and again, has been called into question before. Many ethnic organizations and at least one member of Congress have expressed outrage over other Urban Outfitters products, including a "Ghettopoly" board game; a T-shirt that resembled the clothing that Nazis forced Jews to wear; and a hat that labeled vomiting as "Irish Yoga." (Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York said that last one crossed from humor into "stereotyping and denigration.")

Paul Parkin, founder of SALT Branding, said the shirt was a "tasteless" move designed to grab the attention of the store's younger clientele -- and noted that the public could be tiring of its antics.

"It's clearly out there to raise shameless awareness," said Mr. Parkin. "Urban Outfitters, which has been a rising brand for a while now, is suddenly toying with putting into jeopardy itself with these kinds of statements."

However, Scott Davis, chief growth officer at brand strategy firm Prophet, said he doesn't anticipate much fallout. "As much as I like to tell you it'll affect the brand and the bottom line, I don't think it'll affect either," Mr. Davis said.

He thinks the storm of protest -- and pulling the line -- were all part of Urban Outfitters' plan. "I hate to say this, I think this is a very on-brand strategy and tactic," he said. "It fits the [retailer's] profile of being a bit irreverent and create some buzz and news."

The Urban Outfitters chain reported $328.6 million in sales for the quarter ended July 31.

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