As national holidays go, Halloween certainly leaves the most room to be edgy with your corporate or personal brand.
But it seems every year the holiday produces communications scares that require reputation management teams to have more than just a bag of tricks to treat.
Here are four Halloween PR frights and the responses to quiet the chorus of boos.
1) Walmart Markets ‘Fat Girl’ Costumes
The retail giant delivered us our first faux pas of the 2014 Halloween season when its website featured a Halloween category titled “Fat Girl Costumes.” This frightening oversight was first reported by Jezebel.com Monday morning (Oct. 27), who was tipped off by a Tweet from the week before. Walmart did respond immediately to the original tweet, but I’d have to agree with Jezebel and other disappointed customers that the response felt canned. Plus, the “Fat Girl Costumes” section of the website was never removed. As a result, by Monday afternoon the howls on Twitter had grown fierce. The company quickly changed gears, removing and retooling the section of the website, sending personalized apologies directly to customers via Twitter, while widely sharing a similar statement of apology with journalists within hours of Monday’s social media eruption. However, as a story that’s remains trending, the jury is still out on whether the response was swift and earnest enough to avoid further backlash.
2) Julianne Hough in “Black Face”
Hopefully, Julianne Hough’s publicist helped her shop for this year’s Halloween costume. Last year, the actress was slammed for donning “black face” as part her Orange is the New Black-inspired Halloween costume. She did tweet an apology the next day, which led to supportive tweets from fans, though many still weren’t convinced. In this case, showing remorse on social media may not have been enough. The unfortunate choice is still a topic of conversation on the Twittersphere a year later, and it seems she will be a symbol of Halloween costumes gone wrong for years to come.
3) Pottery Barn Creates Cultural Debate
Pottery Barn’s cultural competence was also questioned last year after it released “Sushi Chef” and “Kimono” costumes for Halloween, which the Asian Americans Advancing Justice criticized as “a commodification” of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Once the group expressed their disapproval, Pottery Barn pulled the costumes from their site and immediately issued an apology. While many in the media came to Pottery Barn’s defense claiming the company was unfairly accused of racism, Pottery Barn should be applauded for providing a swift, genuine yet simple response and then staying above the fray and out of the debate entirely.
4) What’s Worse Than a Sexy Ebola Nurse Costume? A Pot Leaf Costume for Babies
On the other side of the fence, online unique costume retailer BrandsOnSale.com seems to be ignoring the flak it has gotten for offering a “Sexy Ebola Containment Suit.” The general consensus is that it is in very poor taste to make light of this serious health crisis. But so far the company has continued sales of its Ebola costume that comes complete with a face mask and knee-high socks, for what it calls “fashionistas [who] seek global solutions to hazmat couture.”
Creating controversy seems to be built into BrandsOnSale.com’s sales strategy. Company CEO Jonathan Weeks has openly defended his company’s choices, recently telling the Atlantic that as long as customers are buying, he will keep on creating off-color costumes. BrandsOnSale.com has also been widely criticized for its cigarette and pot leaf costumes designed for babies.
Whether deliberately salacious or unintentionally offensive, Halloween PR firestorms ignite fast and can have a lasting burn. Brands that want to avoid controversy should carefully evaluate all Halloween-themed business efforts to ensure they aren’t too ghastly for target demographics and other important stakeholders, as well as have a strong PR team in place to execute a speedy and candid response if customers get spooked.