Retailer Faces Social Media Backlash Over “Holocaust Shirt”

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media Inc.
Copyright 2014 Scripps Media Inc.

The Spanish fashion retailer, Zara, has removed a tee-shirt that sparked a massive backlash on Twitter.

The item in question is a striped tee-shirt with a large yellow star designed for children. The retailer claimed the design was inspired by the “sheriff stars from the classic western films.”

However, thousands of people in traditional and social media complained that it resembled the uniforms Jewish victims of the Holocaust were forced to wear in concentration camps.

In fact, just looking at the image, one has to wonder how people in all levels of production: from design, development, approvals, manufacture, quality assurance, etc. could *not* have seen what clearly looks like the Jewish Star of David sewn into prison garb.

But what they evidently missed, Twitterers saw instantly as they posted photos of the shirt and called out the resemblance.

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The retailer’s parent company, Inditex quickly issued a statement in response:

Zara Kids has removed a children’s t-shirt from its stores and website. The t-shirt withdrawn was inspired by the classic American Westerns and has been taken out of circulation due to the potential similarity with the Star of David that has been used as a yellow star patch. Zara has issued a heartfelt apology on its social network profiles.

The garment was available only for just a few hours and sales of the t-shirt have been marginal. The items will be reliably destroyed.

Inditex would like to reiterate its utmost respect for all cultures and religions. The Group is a Company where people from 180 nationalities work together representing all the cultures, races and religions of the modern world. Inditex is proud of its cultural diversity. In addition, respect and dignity feature among the principles which guide and define its corporate values. The Group condemns and rejects any form of discrimination.

The brand also did an excellent job of responding to nearly every negative Tweet and Facebook post with apologies and recompense.

They’ve posted a notice on their web site and sent statements to media outlets around the world, paying special attention to media in Israel and/or Jewish-specific outlets.

They’ve assured customers that the offensive shirt will be “exterminated” – an odd choice of words, given the subject matter. But, overall, their response to the crisis has been textbook.

Still, a look at their history with these kinds of mistakes raises questions about cultural significance and sensitivities.

Does Cultural Confusion Create PR Crises?

A Zara bag featuring four green swastikas was discontinued in 2007.
A Zara bag featuring four green swastikas was discontinued in 2007.

Consider that Zara saw similar trouble in 2007 when customers complained about a handbag featuring four green swastikas.

At that time, the company stated the bag had been designed and made by an external supplier in India and that the swastika image originated as a Hindu symbol (later appropriated by the Nazis), making this a perfect example of cultural confusion creating a PR crisis.

We’ve often seen brands get “lost in translation” when their message takes on new meaning in a different language. (i.e. Got Milk was translated to “Are You Lactating” in Mexico.)

And, Zara’s continued troubles certainly raise questions about the challenge of working with vendors and suppliers who create products with their own cultural references in mind.

Unfortunately for the brand, this new “Holocaust shirt” has reignited media coverage of the previous mistake. And, when the two are put together, some have argued that the brand is either deliberately creating anti-Semitic products or they are drastically out of touch with history and symbolism.

As one Twitter, Matt Kane, reminded us, “this is why we study history.”

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In fact, another Twitterer pointed out that the brand also carries a “Cowboys and Indians” shirt, which could be seen as offensive to Native Americans.

Whether these mistakes are deliberate or simply reflect ignorance on the part of the buyers who missed this clear imagery, I can’t say.

But, with the recent rise of anti-semitism across Europe, it is surprising that no one noticed the clear resemblance of the “Holocaust shirt” as it has been dubbed online.

Either way, there is no denying the damage these kinds of mistakes can have on a brand.

And, as the world continues to get smaller and our partnerships stretch around the globe, I encourage everyone to add cultural sensitivity training to their buyers and QA leaders.

In the meantime, let’s hope this is the last mistake of this kind from Zara.

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