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Kenneth Cole Perfects the Art of Morally Squirmy Marketing

Yesterday the designer Kenneth Cole continued in his longstanding tradition of making international calamity into a footwear advertisement, tweeting to his 55,000 plus followers as the debate over intervention in Syria raged:

The social media response was reliably furious. Reactions ranged from the personal:

To the outraged:

To the meta-outraged:

After all, this was not the first time Cole had availed himself of tragic world affairs for a convenient shoe sales pitch. In 2011, he tweeted during the Cairo uprisings:

Cole jumped to beg forgiveness afterward, issuing a statement that said, “I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I've dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.” But then he chimed into the gun control debate with the following tweet:

The fashion world has a history of promoting itself with dubious links to difficult international political situations. Take this quite culturally offensive advertisement from United Colors of Benetton, featuring the Pope and Muslim cleric Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb locking lips:


Donna Karan caught flak in 2011 for an ad featuring Adriana Lima luxuriating in silk amid some miserable-looking Haitians. Karan herself has done plenty of activism on behalf of Haiti, but the ad was queasy-making because it commercialized the imagery of tragedy, capitalizing on real hardship for some arsty visual pathos. Even in the face of devastation, you can still feel great about yourself if you are not in fact a Haitian but actually Adriana Lima.


In Cole’s case, at least his marketing ploy was not an expensive piece of institutional brand extension but a bit of irksome needling on his personal twitter account, such transparent trolling that it essentially made a joke of itself. Then last night Cole posted an unrepentant Instagram video that surely did little to repair his image as an effete couturier detached from the suffering of humanity. In the video, he leaned back in a velvet chair and said: “I’ve always used my platform to provoke dialogue about important issues including HIV/AIDS, war, and homelessness. I'm well aware of the risks that come with this approach, and if this encourages further awareness and discussion of critical issues, then all the better.” The PR mistake here was the argument that his strategy is designed to stir up conversation about Syria, which it unmistakably is not. A better defense might have been, “I’ve always used important issues including HIV/AIDS, war, and homeless to provoke dialogue about my platform.” Considerable moral squirminess aside, that would have been tough to argue with.