Marketing mis-steps and the assault on free speech

Nike recently released their Nike SB Dunk Low shoes, which are apparently “unofficially” named “Black and Tans.”

The issue with the name is that there was apparently a British paramilitary group from 1920 to 1921 who patrolled regions of Ireland trying to supress rebellion who was also “unofficially” named the Black and Tans. And they were reportedly extremely callous, inhuman and nasty.

According to, the was the first to break the story. Based on the way the articles are written, it would appear is located or written for people in Ireland while is written for Irish Americans.

The reporting of the controversy seems pretty matter-of-fact
, but given that they don’t actually explain why “black and tan” is a loaded phrase in Ireland, I’m guessing it’s pretty well known there.

Meanwhile, if is truly located in and/or written for Irish-Americans, they seem to be going the offended route with their reporting of the story.

What I can’t seem to figure out is if Nike was involved in the “black and tan” label, since everywhere I can find this story, it’s referred to as an “unofficial” name. That could mean a lot of things. Online and brick-and-mortar retailers could be getting their marketing talking points from Nike, or they could be taking their Irish-themed talking points from each other (though it would seem most likely to come from Nike).

I’d also like to know if the marketing for these shoes was intended for the US (or North America) or if it was supposed to be worldwide. That makes a big difference, because if it was intended for worldwide release, their localization department would presumably alter the marketing appropriately for each market – including doing away with the phrase “black and tan” in the UK and Irish markets.

The article references an idea I’ve seen in several articles covering this – that one Google search would have prevented this. But if the marketing was intended for the US, I’m not sure – had I been running that marketing department – I would have vetoed this idea even if we had unearthed the correlation on Google.

While the “black and tan” phrase is well-known and appropriately reviled in Ireland, I would bet that the same US-based people who suggested Nike should have Googled this had to Google it themselves to learn the historical context.

Languages and cultures all over the world are filled with icons, words and phrases that are perfectly innocuous in one culture while loaded and offensive in another. If a campaign created solely for one market is offensive to one who either lives in or is from another market, I’m not sure that should warrant an apology from the offending company.

I understand we’re in a time in which companies have to be transparent and must react quickly to gaffes because of the real-time social media culture in which we live. But doesn’t this also create a climate in which anyone who wants to make their own name can decide to be offended by something that was pretty innocent and had no intent of doing harm?

This brings me to the Mad Men season five campaign currently creating some stir in New York City:

If you’re a Mad Men fan, and have spent any time at all watching the show over the past four seasons, you’d instantly recognize this metaphor for Don Draper’s crashing life. It also made for what most Mad Man fans thought was a pretty cool promotional campaign for the new season.

The image above has been seen on the sides of buildings around the City of New York. Unfortunately, a few of those who are unfamiliar with image have associated it with 9/11 and the horrible sight of seeing people jumping from the twin towers.

Obviously, the reminder – especially for those who actually saw it live – is a horrible one. On the other hand, I would argue (without benefit of being part of the conversation that led to this campaign) that this promotion is targeting those who are familiar with and looking forward to the new season of the show.

My guess is that they figured anyone who saw it and didn’t immediately recognize it would either ask a friend until they figured it out – cause for some good word of mouth – or they would dismiss it and move on without another thought.

There’s a lot of people in New York, which means a lot of imaginations. And in this age when everyone can have an online voice, it only took one to opine that it reminded them of 9/11 for the idea to catch on.

But again, I wonder where do we draw the line? Should AMC be apologizing for this marketing? They may, like Nike, publicly state that they had no intention of offending, but should they apologize or even go further by removing it?

There’s really two (at least) perspectives that are compelling to me – how do people feel about this on a personal level, but also, what should a marketing department do about this sort of thing.

Again, with the immediate and personal access companies have in 2012, a statement of intent is crucial. It’s important to let people know there was no intention to offend or even draw publicity from the controversy. But I’m not sure I’d apologize for either campaign, nor would I stop them.

America has become pretty thin-skinned these days as there’s always somebody or some group who’s sole existence seems to rely on looking to be offended. It is my belief that most people who make a speaking error and most marketing efforts that seem to step in it don’t mean harm, and when we start seeking apologies – or even worse, boycotts or punishment, we start harming one of the most important foundations of this country – free speech.

Freedom of speech is a freedom worth fighting for, and while we have guaranteed one’s right to free speech, we have not guaranteed one’s right to never be offended. You simply can’t have one without the other, and free speech is far more important because it is about the sharing and discussion of ideas – however unsettling or uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, freedom from being offended leads to people holding ideas and self-censoring, and that’s no society in which I would ever want to live.

But if this is a battle between free speech and being offended, just wait until I unleash my army: The Coalition Of People who are Offended by People who are Offended (CO-POP-O). I long for the day when my group receives the growing list of apologies that we are due.

– My name is Jon Friesch, and if you find that offensive, I’m afraid you’ll just have to learn to live with it.

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