|ESPN.com: College Football||[Print without images]|
|Was Under Armour's intent patriotism or a self-promotional venture?|
Dear Under Armour,
Quite a week it's turning out to be, eh? That flag-based uniform you designed for Northwestern as a promotional tie-in for the Wounded Warrior Project is turning out to be more controversial than you probably expected. Some critics feel the uniform is jingoistic. Others have described it as "gore porn," in part because the design features red streaks that some have interpreted as splattered blood. You refuted that argument Wednesday, explaining that the red streaks "were inspired by images of actual American flags that have been flown around the world in harsh conditions" and adding, with what appeared to be a bit of annoyance, "The suggestion that these uniforms are depicting streaks of blood is completely false and uninformed."
Please believe me when I say that what I'm about to tell you is meant with the best of intentions. Let's go one thing at a time:
1. I'm pretty sure everyone agrees that the Wounded Warrior Project is a worthy organization, and most people also realize that Northwestern approved this uniform after you presented it to them. Rightly or wrongly, however, most people don't perceive this uniform as a Northwestern-WWP design that happens to have been made by Under Armour. They see it as an Under Armour design that happens to have something to do with WWP and Northwestern. In other words, they think it's about you.
|Can you blame people for interpreting Northwestern's red streaks on its uniforms as splattered blood?|
2. Do I think you intended to create a "blood-splattered" design, as some are alleging? No, I don't. But come on -- is it really so hard for you to see how someone might think that's what you were doing? Look at this photo, or this one -- it's not difficult to see how a reasonable person might think those red streaks are intended to mimic dripping or splattered blood, especially when used in a design that's related to battlefield injuries. (Yes, I realize that's not the only reasonable conclusion someone could draw, but it certainly isn't crazy or outlandish.)
Moreover, you and your competitors have been pushing the militaristic angle, the superhero angle, the intimidation angle, the warfare angle and the combat angle in your designs and your marketing for years now. When viewed in that environment, it's not surprising that some people would connect certain dots or draw certain inferences (again, rightly or wrongly), because that is precisely what you have trained them to do.
In light of that, your response to the "blood-splatter" criticisms Thursday was particularly disappointing. Instead of saying something along the lines of, "We understand how people could have gotten the wrong idea, we apologize for any confusion and we'll be more careful in the future," you took a defiant tone. Sorry, guys, but that's the very definition of a tin-eared response. You are the ones who helped create the climate of perceived militarism that surrounds this design. For you to act all full of offended dignity, and to accuse your critics of being "uninformed," is disingenuous.
3. Your design approach in recent years appears to be predicated largely on shock value. Yes, I know, you like to call it "innovation" or "pushing the envelope" or "telling a story," but let's be honest -- it's about shock value and being outrageous. But here's the thing: If you try to be outrageous, you're going to end up with some people who are, you know, outraged. I realize some of that is already baked into your business model -- annoying old-school traditionalists like me is how you maintain your street cred, or something like that. I get it. But outrage isn't always something you can plan for and control. Sometimes it spreads, like a wildfire, and you can't just dismiss it by labeling outraged people as "uninformed." You have to take ownership of, and responsibility for, the situation you've created.
|Under Armour has a history of designing attire for shock value.|
4. I realize your college football designs are created primarily for the benefit of teenagers. That's why you promote and market them as if you were selling comic books, not sportswear, because that's what teenagers respond to. Again, I get it -- it's all about the youngs, not the olds. But patriotism and wounded veterans don't lend themselves to comic-book treatments. You can't treat this stuff like a video game and then try to claim the moral high ground regarding something like the Wounded Warrior Project, and you can't deal with adult issues by employing design and marketing techniques geared to appeal to teenagers. The response to this uniform shows what can happen when you try to do that.
I could go on, but those are the major points I wanted to address today. I tell you all this as a friend and in the spirit of mutual respect we've always had -- a spirit I look forward to maintaining in the months to come.
Paul Lukas doesn't think the Northwestern uniform qualifies as "gore porn" but does think it's pretty ugly. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.