When Brands Blunder
Tesco got in trouble for its offensive Halloween costume, and Paris's T-shirt had parents up in arms. But they're not the only ones to make a mistake
In terms of self-inflicted PR disasters, the decision by a leading supermarket chain to market a 'Mental Patient' Halloween costume will have to be filed under 'Staggeringly Dumb'.
And when a rival chain is simultaneously caught selling a similarly themed 'Psycho Ward' boiler-suit – emblazoned with the slogan "Committed" – we might begin to wonder what they are putting in the bottled water on the boardroom tables at Tesco and Asda.
It was hard to believe that in 2013, a major retail corporation would market a 'Mental Patient' fancy dress costume featuring a slashed and blood-soaked strait-jacket on a model wearing horror-movie make-up and brandishing a rusty meat cleaver.
What was not hard to predict was the massive and instant social-media outrage.
While the two supermarket chains quickly apologised, they are not the only major corporations to recently provoke widespread outrage with poorly thought out products.
Some of the world's biggest retailers have made major blunders and caused endless headaches for their PR departments in recent years.
A number of well-known online stores are still offering a shocking number of fancy dress costumes which, mental health advocates claim, trivialise mental-health issues and stigmatise those who suffer from them. Costumes for sale right now online have themes such as 'Escaped Insane Asylum Inmate' or for kids, 'Psycho Baby Axe-Murderer'.
One US website was recently forced to pull a 'Sexy Anna Rexia' costume, a skin-tight, skeleton dress playing on the eating disorder that affects young women in particular. The now-pulled costume came with a bone headband, hospital ID tag and a measuring tape ribbon belt.
Away from the fancy dress theme, a number of major retailers have drawn fire for marketing outfits for pre-teen or far younger girls that are wildly age-inappropriate.
It's been a hot issue since at least 2002, when the upmarket youth clothes store chain Abercrombie & Fitch brought out a line which included thong underwear – in kids' sizes down to 10 years of age – printed with suggestive phrases such as "Wink Wink" and "Eye Candy". The resulting controversy saw parents picket Abercrombie & Fitch stores in the US.
An Abercrombie spokesperson said the underwear was meant to be "lighthearted and cute". The firm said the product was aimed at girls aged 10 or over, even though the Abercrombie Kids line, under which the thongs were marketed, was aimed at girls aged 7-14.
Paris Hilton drew fire when her signature fashion line bought out a tiny pink t-shirt with the slogan "Sexy Bitch", aimed at "juniors".
Earlier this year, the global lingerie company Victoria's Secret was criticised by concerned parents' groups in the US and further afield for bringing out a range directed at younger customers (the company said they were targeting college-age girls, but many parents felt the candy-coloured underwear was also enticing for much younger girls).
The marketing campaign for the youth-orientated PINK lingerie line, dubbed 'Bright Young Things', included a line of thongs bearing slogans like "I Dare You", "Wild", and "Feeling Lucky".
Last summer in Australia, the mother of an eight-year-old girl caused a major PR headache for the Target chain when she wrote an open letter on Facebook to the discount department store, asking them to stop selling clothes for pre-teen girls that made them look like "tramps".
Primary school teacher Ana Amini wrote: "Dear Target, Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn't make them look like tramps? You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don't want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable.''
Her open letter started something of a social-media storm – getting 44,000 responses from other parents within 72-hours and prompting a response from the retailer promising to look into their policies.
The ability of parents and groups to use social media to immediately name and shame retailers who they think have crossed the line – and to organise highly effective and media-friendly campaigns against them – is now making many companies jittery.
Major brands and chains such as Victoria's Secret, Target, Walmart and now Asda and Tesco have felt the force of instant backlash. And in this online age, it is becoming increasingly risky for companies to make the kind of blunder that got Asda into so much hot water.
However, while it is now easier than ever to organise an anti-brand campaign, there is one question that often goes unraised on social media – would retailers bother making T-shirts for tweens that say "Sexy Bitch" if there was no parents out there willing to buy them?