Friday, July 4, 2014

American Apparel and More Than One Disaster

What American Apparel Posted
The Interwebs brouhaha du jour comes to us from the fine folks at American Apparel, the troubled but still (perhaps) trendy purveyor of overpriced clothing and sexualized advertising—all with a social conscience, of course. Apparently some enterprising lad or lass with admin access to the corporation’s Tumblr account posted a Photoshopped image of the Challenger explosion in what may have been somehow related to celebrating Independence Day. The actual post has now vanished (of course), but a screengrab shows that it was tagged “smoke, clouds.”

Was this image intended to be fireworks? That’s a rather bizarre claim, but so says the Ryan Parker of the Los Angeles Times.* I find no evidence to support this assertion. Of course, a dazzling array of other media outlets blithely repeated the Parker’s claim without checking it out: here’s Talking Points Memo, NBC, and WHNT (Huntsville, AL), for example. (Who’d have guessed that the New York Daily News, of all places, would actually get the story right?)

* Note: in the time it’s taken me to write this piece (taking time out to watch the Colombia-Brazil match at the World Cup), the LA Times has amended their on-line story to suggest that “It is unclear if the image was mistaken for fireworks or clouds.” Nice try, guys, but I know what your story said at first, both by having read it and having seen it widely cited elsewhere. You made an irresponsible claim, and now you’re saying it’s “unclear.” As in, “it is unclear whether reporters for the LA Times are required to obey any sort of code of journalistic ethics,” apparently.

The more iconic photo used in the LA Times story.
I should also note that the Times and TPM, among others, used what are in fact instantly recognizable photographs of the explosion to accompany their coverage, rather than showing the Photoshopped, re-colorized, image American Apparel’s social media maven found on an English designer’s Tumblr page.

Anyway, American Apparel issued a public apology:
We deeply apologize for today’s Tumblr post of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The image was re-blogged in error by one of our international social media employees who was born after the tragedy and was unaware of the event. We sincerely regret the insensitivity of that selection and the post has been deleted.
There are three levels of wrong here, and Curmie admits he’s not sure which one is worse. But I’m pretty sure of who’s the least culpable: the person who actually made the mistake (assuming, and I’m not so naïve as to take this on faith, that it actually was a mistake). True, the image found on Tumblr doesn’t look a whole lot like smoke and clouds (and still less like fireworks), but I confess I wouldn’t have instantly recognized the source. It is not the iconic image of the Challenger explosion; it’s the sort of picture where a lot of people might say, “oh, yeah, I see it now.” And remember, the image is actually upside-down (and yes, that matters.)

The company’s apology is more than a little weird, however. “Born after the tragedy and… unaware of the event”? Born after January of 1986? Sure. This person could be in his/her mid-to-late-20s by now. “Unaware of the event”? Are you freaking kidding me? We’re talking about one of the signature events of the decade, here, even if that “international social media employee” means that American Apparel, which touts its American roots when it works to the corporation’s advantage to do so turns its social media over to non-Americans. Unaware of the event? As in, not “didn’t immediately recognize an edited photograph,” but “had no idea this ever happened”? Let’s see, what’s an equivalent event that happened a couple of years before I was born? Bobby Thompson’s home run against Ralph Branca? Nope. Too obscure unless you’re a baseball fan. The end of the Korean War? Too general. I’ve got it: Edward R. Murrow’s famous rebuke of Senator Joe McCarthy. And hey, guess what? I knew about it before I graduated from high school, let alone before taking a full-time job in a position of responsibility post-college.

Moreover, this isn’t the first time American Apparel has done something outrageous in their self-promotion. There was the obviously completely intentional “Hurricane Sandy Sale” a couple of years ago, for example, available only in areas hit by the storm and advertised by the cutline “In case you’re bored during the storm”. Were I of cynical disposition (perish the thought!), I might suggest that, given their history of questionable social media behavior and their hypersexualized ad campaigns (designed, no doubt, to stir controversy for its own sake), that someone—more likely a group of someones—high up in that corporate structure is convinced of the aphorism that all publicity is good publicity.

We are left inevitably with only four possible explanations: American Apparel is collectively illiterate (they meant to say something other than what they did in their apology), they’re lying, they hire uneducated buffoons and put them in the position of representing the corporation to the rest of the world, or they’re just a collection of right little assholes looking for notoriety in whatever form it might come. I confess that I find all of these possibilities rather unsettling… indeed, I’d stop shopping there, except for the fact that in order to stop, I’d have to start.

The press’s response, of course, has been a lot closer to sensationalist than to sensational. I’m happy to run a retraction if someone can provide legitimate evidence that I should, but for now I’m going to go with this: Ryan Parker and the LA Times published an assertion with no evidence, hosts of media outlets blithely repeated these speculations (if they even rise to that level) as fact, and a fair number of “reputable” news websites ran versions of the most famous photographs of the Challenger disaster rather than what American Apparel actually posted, thereby quite intentionally attempting to deceive their readership.

Why? Because they’re lazy? Absolutely. Interested in making the story “sexy,” whether it’s true of not? Of course. Unprofessional? Self-evidently. Dishonest? Yep.

In short, no one looks good here.  Imagine my surprise. 

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