They Sold What!?! How Retailers Have Gone Too Far

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Victoria Secret Headdress
Evan Agostini/Invision/APVictoria Secret apologized for putting a replica of a Native American headdress on a model for its annual fashion show.
By Krystina Gustafson

Whether it was an honest mistake or a calculated attempt to build buzz about their brand, retailers over the years have certainly had their fair share of blunders. The latest occurred this week with a slogan on bottles saying Bud Light removes the word "no" from drinkers' vocabulary. Anheuser-Busch is apologizing.

Despite the multiple levels of approval required at some of these culprits -- many of which are large, publicly traded companies -- items that shoppers perceived as sexist, racist or otherwise distasteful still managed to find their way through the pipeline and onto shelves.

The mistakes are not easily forgotten. Thanks to the widespread adoption of social media, experts said missteps that used to put a temporary tarnish on a retailer's reputation can now have long-lasting effects that hurt its brand equity for years to come. "That expression that [there's] no bad publicity, it's not true," said Jennifer Vickery, president and CEO of National Strategies Public Relations. "It takes millions of dollars and a lot of time to fix those things."

This is particularly true among repeat offenders, many of whom intentionally put out distasteful items to define their brand as cheeky, suggestive or shocking, said Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR. He said that controversial products put out by Abercrombie & Fitch over the years, which isolated particular groups of customers, are likely part of the reason it's struggling to rebuild its brand today. "What we understand is that those kinds of branding efforts can backfire in the long term if the brand violently alienates markets to which they may want to expand in later years," Fineman said.

For its part, the teen retailer has been working to improve its image by adding larger sizes to its assortments, and launching its second annual anti-bullying campaign in October. The company also parted ways with controversial CEO Mike Jeffries after steep sales declines. Let's look at some items in the hall of shame.

That Bud Light Bottle

The Bud Light bottle was pulled from the company's "Up for Whatever" campaign in April, after it prompted a petition with more than 14,000 signatures. Critics said the bottle, which reads, "The perfect beer for removing 'no' from your vocabulary for the night," promotes "rape culture" over "consent culture." "The Bud Light Up for Whatever campaign, now in its second year, has inspired millions of consumers to engage with our brand in a positive and light-hearted way," Alexander Lambrecht, vice president of Bud Light, said in a statement. "In this spirit, we created more than 140 different scroll messages intended to encourage brand engagement. It's clear that this particular message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior."

Abercrombie & Fitch Clothing

The teen retailer got into hot water in 2002 when it sold a series of T-shirts that many shoppers said trivialized the Asian culture. Among them was a shirt depicting the Wong Brothers' laundry service, where "two Wongs can make it white," and "Get Your Buddha on the Floor." Also in 2002, A&F angered parents by selling children's thong underwear that included suggestive words such as "wink wink." The product was pulled from its stores. A few years later, A&F stirred up controversy again for a series of T-shirts, including one that read, "Do I Make You Look Fat?"

Play-Doh's Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset

Images of Play-Doh's Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset spread across social media in December, after children unwrapped the gift over the holidays. The issue? The kit's frosting "extruder," which is used to squeeze icing onto the play cakes, resembles a certain part of the male body. "We have heard some consumer feedback about the extruder tool in the Play-Doh Cake Mountain playset and are in the process of updating all future Play-Doh products with a different tool," Julie Duffy, vice president of global communications at Play-Doh's parent company Hasbro said via email. The company offered replacement pieces for customers who contact its customer service department.

Urban Outfitters Shirts

Known for its controversial merchandise, Urban Outfitters had to change its "Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl" shirt, which hit shelves about 10 years ago, because the text was surrounded by "stereotypical symbols such as dollar signs," Fineman said. In response to the controversy, the company redesigned the shirt to exclude the dollar signs. It made headlines in 2010 when it sold a gray T-shirt that read, "Eat Less." The retailer pulled the item. And in September it stirred outrage when it sold a red sweatshirt bearing the Kent State name and what appeared to be a blood splatter. The retailer responded on Twitter, saying: "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."


Retailers that sell to a wide array of customers are often more vulnerable to hurting their brand equity when they carry controversial items, Fineman said. It's also more difficult for their teams to monitor the millions of items that they're selling. "There's going to be a few of these things that fall through the cracks," he said. Both Amazon and Sears stopped selling a swastika ring on their websites. Sears issued an apology in October, saying, "[We] want you to know that the ring was not posted by Sears, but by independent third-party vendors."

Sometimes it isn't the product that's the issue; it's what it's wrapped in. In December, questions were raised about blue-and-silver wrapping paper sold by Hallmark that one customer said included a swastika embedded in its design. The company pulled the gift wrap from its stores, saying it never intended to offend anyone.

Victoria's Secret Items

In 2012, the lingerie brand drew criticism for its "Sexy Little Geisha" outfit, which featured model Candice Swanepoel in a mostly see-through bodysuit with "Eastern-inspired" florals. Victoria's Secret removed the link from its website amid the controversy. That same year, Victoria's Secret received complaints after model Karlie Kloss wore a headdress during its annual fashion show. "We are sorry that the American Indian headdress replica used in our recent fashion show has upset individuals," it responded. "We sincerely apologize as we absolutely had no intention to offend anyone."

Zara Clothing

Last year, Zara came under fire for its T-shirt that read "White Is the New Black." Although the shirt is no longer available on the company's website, Zara kept selling a shirt that said: "Leopard Is the New Black," with the word "leopard" written in leopard print. A few weeks later, it released a striped blue-and-white children's pajama top with a yellow star over the left chest. Consumers took to social media, criticizing the retailer for the item's resemblance to uniforms worn by prisoners at concentration camps during the Holocaust. Zara issued an apology over social media, saying, "We honestly apologize. It was inspired by the sheriff's stars from the classic Western films and is no longer in our stores."

Sexy Halloween Costumes

Ronald McDonald? Check. Oscar the Grouch? Check. Olaf the Snowman? The list goes on. Sexy costume maker Yandy made headlines last year when its racy take on the "Frozen" character sold out.
Costume makers have come under increased scrutiny over the years for turning nearly every object and character imaginable into an opportunity for women to dress suggestively at Halloween. Yandy previously declined to comment on its Olaf costume. A wide swath of retailers -- including Party City and Kmartv- drew fire for a racy cop costume shown here last year, designed for toddlers or children.

Three More Shirts Considered Offensive
  • After the bombings at the Boston Marathon in 2013, Nike pulled its "Boston Massacre" T-shirt. The shirts made no reference to the bombings -- in fact, they were created before the attack -- and were designed as a nod to when the Yankees swept the Red Sox in a four-game series in 1978.
  • Parents were outraged with J.C. Penney in 2011, when the department store started selling a sweatshirt that read, "I'm too pretty to do homework, so my brother has to do it for me." The retailer pulled the sweatshirt and apologized, saying, "We agree that the 'too pretty' T-shirt does not deliver an appropriate message."
  • In 2013, The Children's Place stopped selling a girls' T-shirt that listed the wearer's "best subjects" as shopping, music and dancing. The only box that didn't have a check? Math. The retailer issued an apology on social media, saying, "We take feedback from our customers seriously. We pulled the T-shirt from our stores and express apologies to anyone we may have offended."
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