In mid-September, retailer Urban Outfitters released a Kent State University-branded sweatshirt as a part of its “vintage find” line. Tattered with what appeared to be bullet holes and with stains the color of blood, the $129 sweatshirt’s description praised the garment’s “excellent vintage condition.” This evocation of a 1970 shooting at the school quickly prompted customers of all ages—many of them too young to have been alive during the Kent State massacre, let alone remember it—to flock to express their disgust on social media. The overriding sentiment about the implications of the garment’s sale was clear: This was an unabashed attempt by Urban Outfitters to elicit attention for its new line.
But this Urban Outfitters stunt is only the most recent example of a tendency by brands to commodify tragedies that might have seemed to age out, but are still very present in contemporary American memory.
In August, Spanish retailer Zara released a child’s blue striped shirt affixed with a six-point gold star patch to considerable criticism, with many turning to social media to express their dissatisfaction for what they called a careless Holocaust reference. Zara tweeted a statement of apology, contending that the patch—which many interpreted as a Star of David—was really a reference to the prototypical sheriff’s attire in a Western.
Corporate interests taking precedence over corporate sensitivity isn’t news, but the backlash from young shoppers is. Much of the customer base for Zara and Urban Outfitters—a brand that specifically made headlines in the spring for its surprisingly young demographic of high school buyers—weren’t alive to witness the tragedies in question. It’s hard to imagine that a substantial number of shoppers walking through malls with Urban shopping bags learned of the events at Kent State—where four students were shot when the National Guard opened fire on about 1,000 unarmed protesters—in anything other than a history class.
The university’s tragedy has certainly stayed with those on the campus of Kent State—the school’s official statement said the sweatshirt was “beyond poor taste and trivializes a loss of life that still hurts the Kent State community.” But its resonance with multiple generations across the country shows it’s not necessary for buyers to have experienced the events in question to be turned off by their commercialization.
Our generation, marked by the Occupy movement, does not take insensitivity lightly. It doesn’t matter how, when, or why we became aware of a gross overuse of brutality—but simply that we are. Reflecting on the unconstitutional and overly aggressive manner in which the protest on Kent State’s campus was handled, the current generation of young adults is forced to consider how protests like Occupy Wall Street may have turned out differently if they were met with similar force. Though our technology and politics might change, the youthful desire to make one’s voices heard is timeless. Just because the Kent State shooting—as with many of these recently commodified tragedies—is dated does not mean it is any less relevant or any more deserving to be trivialized.
We cannot be so desensitized to the world around us that we set a precedent of allowing displays like this to go unnoticed and unscrutinized. The depraved character of Urban Outfitters has not made it edgy; it has left the merchant flat. It should not expect lost customers to return anytime soon. There are still those who will not allow the memory of the events that took place at Kent State to be dismissed in the name of profit.