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.
Why do they think that? Well, for one thing, the uniform has your logo, not the WWP logo. Also, the promotional photos of the uniform show your corporate slogan in the background, and the style of the photos reflects the same superhero approach you typically use for all your promotional photo shoots. In other words, when people see those photos, they don't perceive you to be promoting WWP or Northwestern -- rightly or wrongly, they perceive you to be promoting yourself. And when you try to attach patriotism and charity to what is perceived as a self-promotional venture, people immediately become suspicious. It sets off their cynicism alarms and their bull detectors. It gets you off on the wrong foot with people before they can even look at the details of your design. Which brings us to…
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.
Similarly, another tenet of your business model these days appears to be, "If we get attention, good or bad, then we've succeeded." You can't go that route and then complain that some of the negative attention you're getting is "uninformed." Again, if you're going to be outrageous, be prepared to own it, or at least accept the consequences.
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.