The world awoke this morning to yet another clothing-related scandal, courtesy of Urban Outfitters. The Philadelphia-based brand, which traffics in try-hard hipster clothing, released what might be its most tasteless creation yet: a Kent State University sweatshirt adorned with what appears to be blood stains. Kent State University was home to the 1970 massacre in which four students were killed and nine others wounded by National Guard soldiers.
The thing is, this isn’t the first (or second, or even third) time Urban Outfitters has caught flak for selling horrible products. Making extremely offensive clothes has been almost synonymous with the company’s brand. Before Kent State, there was a top covered front-to-back with the word “depression.” Before that, another Urban Outfitters shirt featured a star that appeared nearly identical to the insignia Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. (More recently, Zara pulled a shirt from its shelves for the same reason.) And before that there was the infamous “Eat Less” shirt, which prompted One Tree Hill star Sophia Bush to boycott the store in protest of what she saw as a “pro-anorexia message.”
So is Urban Outfitters run by a bunch of jerks? Perhaps, but—and this is an important but—they’re jerks with business sense. Urban Outfitters Inc, the company that owns Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, Terrain, and Bhldn brands, recently announced record quarterly sales of $811 million. If courting controversy was bad for the bottom line, Urban wouldn’t be doing it. That begs the question: Is any publicity good publicity, as the saying goes, or will the company eventually suffer if it goes too far over the line?
Kit Yarrow, PhD, a consumer psychology expert and professor at Golden Gate University (and MONEY contributor), believes being repugnant is (regrettably) a good business strategy, especially for clothing brands that target a younger audience. “I think they get encouragement to keep doing it because they do get a lot of attention for it,” said Yarrow. “It’s offensive and a little bit tasteless, but shock value just can’t be underrated these days. In some ways it’s a little bit appealing to consumers to connect with a store that’s on the edgier side, and that’s one of the ways the store tells consumers they’re pushing the boundaries and aren’t your parents lame old store.”
Another factor that may reward an offend-first strategy is that millennials, Urban Outfitter’s core demographic, are especially difficult to reach because they’re constantly bombarded with stimulation and advertising. According to Yarrow, it may take something truly shocking to break through all of the noise. A bloodstained sweater referencing an event most young people only vaguely know about might be what it takes to bring the Urban Outfitters brand to the forefront.
Yarrow doesn’t think the company will suffer for its Kent State gaffe. “If they apologize in any way, and a half-hearted apology is their typical pattern, then they’re partially forgiven,” she explained. Sure enough, the company was quick to post a completely unbelievable mea culpa on Twitter soon after the story broke.
Short of expressing explicit prejudice (and even then, there are exceptions), it’s hard for Urban Outfitters or any brand to offend so badly as to experience serious financial harm, Yarrow said. She pointed out that Chick-fil-A has persevered, despite its opposition to gay marriage. American Apparel was ultimately forced to demote CEO Dov Charney after repeated allegations of sexual harassment began to interfere with business, but he is still at the company as a consultant and is paid the same salary as when he was chief executive. CNN reports the company’s financials are improving.
The one thing Yarrow thinks consumers won’t forgive is a failure to push boundaries. Abercrombie, another millennial-focused clothing brand, has had its own share of scandals, but she believes its recent sales troubles have more to do with the company’s perceived arrogance and willingness to rest on its laurels. “One girl told me last week ‘They [Abercrombie] haven’t done a thing differently in a decade,’ ” said Yarrow. “Not being daring is more offensive to Gen Y-ers.”