Urban Outfitters has been known to push the boundaries of tastefulness when it comes to its merchandise. That’s part of its branding strategy and a key reason why it has strong appeal among affluent teens and young people.
But the clothing chain’s recent announcement of holiday socks featuring the Hindu deity Ganesha is more head-scratching than anything. Some Hindus have already called for Urban Outfitters to pull the merchandise, which seems unlikely given that the company seeks to offend equally. But having the Ganesha socks, as well as one of Jesus, isn’t necessarily the main point of objection.
The bigger question is, who in the decision-making process at Urban Outfitters has the common sense to understand context? For Hindus, having images of deities on something to be worn on the feet is highly offensive, but what’s probably more offensive is the appropriation of Hindu imagery without any understanding of what they mean. Would the cross or an Islamic crescent be placed on undergarments? Probably not, I suspect, since decision-makers would wisely consider the consequences of their actions.
More than a decade ago, Abercrombie & Fitch issued clothing offensive to Asian-Americans, with lines such as “Two Wongs make a White” etched across T-shirts. One executive at the firm even remarked that he thought Asian-Americans would “love” the clothing, apparently oblivious to the centuries of racism and stereotyping against people of Asian descent. Eventually, Abercrombie relented and withdrew the clothing, but not before offending the Asian-American community and getting its reputation — and bottom line — hindered.
What Urban Outfitters is doing with the socks might seem like zany and irreverent hipsterism at its finest, but in reality shows that its key decision makers don’t have a clue when it comes to constituency awareness. There are lot of Hindu Americans in colleges across the country wearing Urban Outfitters clothing. Would the chain risk losing most of them over a pair of classless socks?
That’s why the Ganesha socks issue — much like the Abercrombie shirt controversy — speaks to a much larger problem in corporate America, particularly in the retail industry: the lack of diverse voices to help bring some perspective. There has to be someone in the room who speaks up and asks, “Hey, are we risking offending a lot of people and tarnishing our brand?” Perhaps getting more input from groups who would be adversely impacted by certain types of images on clothing – or hiring more decision-makers from those communities — would reduce these types of issues and help clothing companies with their brand management.
In other words, this isn’t about political correctness. It’s just plain old common sense.