Last week Urban Outfitters withdrew a sweatshirt from its online store. The item appeared to be stained with blood and bore the logo of Kent State University. In 1970 this university was the scene of Vietnam war protests during which four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen.
— Fox News (@FoxNews) September 15, 2014
As the week wore on attention moved to another questionable business venture – Death Row Dinners, a death-row themed restaurant in Hoxton.
— VICE (@VICE) September 17, 2014
Both of these ideas were bound to cause offence, and both have prompted swift apologies from the originators. But how sincere are they?
After complaints about its sweatshirt, Urban Outfitters issued this apology:
“Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes for any offense our Vintage Kent State Sweatshirt may have caused. 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.”
And Death Row Dinners issued a statement following an online backlash against the idea:
“We’re shocked and saddened by the response to Death Row Dinners and are genuinely very sorry for any offence caused. The pop up is intended to explore the concept of last meals: anyone who was ever been to a dinner party has probably had this conversation – what would they love their last meal to be.”
There are a few similarities between these apologies.
This is designed to invoke sympathy for the people who have caused offence in the first place. Death Row Dinners also says it’s “shocked” by the response. Really?
They tell us their “intentions”
Urban Outfitters didn’t intend to “allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State” and Death Row Dinners is “intended to explore the concept of last meals”. It’s not clear how the red-spattered sweatshirt does not allude to the shooting, or how exactly the pop-up restaurant explores one of the most complex moral issues faced by humanity.
They explicitly state their sincerity
“Urban Outfitters sincerely apologizes” and Death Row Dinners “are genuinely very sorry”. How do we know this, and why should we trust them following these serious misjudgments?
The problem with these apologies is that they focus more on saving face than addressing the issues at hand. This allows the negative publicity to continue.
There is a crucial difference between the two, though. The apology from Urban Outfitters was accompanied by the sweatshirt being removed from sale – a decisive action.
Death Row Dinners, on the other hand, initially decided to forge ahead with its controversial project.
The announcement of this decision also included the phrases “the severity of the reaction is not at all surprising in the current world of instant outrage” and “if you don't like it, it's very simple, just don't go”. Would you eat at a restaurant that responds to complaints in this way?
In this case actions speak louder than words, and it’s here that Urban Outfitters comes out on top. By removing the sweatshirt from sale the company performs significant damage control. But the Death Row Dinners argument looks set to simmer on for a while yet, with protests planned against it before it’s even open.
So who’s really sorry? It’s not just a matter of who talks the talk, but who walks the walk. Just because you say so, doesn’t make it so – and this is just as true for brands as it is people. Genuinely.