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Halloween, offensive costumes, and bad publicity

For most retailers, the four-month long “holiday season” is rife with opportunity for public relations outreach. There’s plenty of news stories to latch on to, seasonal product launches, and holiday editions of magazines eager to feature businesses and their stories. However, the first holiday in the lineup, Halloween, seems to churn out a disproportionate amount of mistakes and negative publicity for businesses.

Each year, a number of retailers come under fire for offering tacky, tasteless, and downright offensive costumes in their Halloween product line. Seemingly ignorant to the multitude of examples from years past, businesses put costumes front and center that are obviously a bad decision in terms of brand reputation. 2015 was no different, and some major players had enormous slip-ups in October.

party city police officer

Photo via Party City on Twitter

Party City, a major event supplies retailer, took the bad-taste cake this year with not one, but two separate instances of public outcry over their costumes. In September, one mother penned an open letter on Party City’s Facebook page expressing her disappointment with their selection of sexualized girls’ costumes, mentioning a police officer costume in particular.  Many national news outlets picked up the story, and a debate ensued about what constitutes an appropriate costume for little girls. This week, Party City was again the focus of internet outrage after another woman took to social media to complain about the store’s inclusion of stereotypical Native American costumes.

The event supplies store wasn’t alone in their choice to include costumes that can be seen as racially-insensitive or degrading to certain cultures. Walmart recently pulled two costumes, an “Arab Sheikh” outfit that included a hook nose, and a children’s Israeli Solider getup. The big box store has also frequently pulled costumes in years past, including one meant to depict a mental hospital patient, and some locations decided against selling “Caitlyn Jenner” costumes earlier this fall. Amazon, however, went full-steam ahead on offering a “lady boy drag” outfit in its UK stores, before quickly removing it after complaints.

walmart halloween costume

Photo credit: Walmart

It is true that many of these mistakes happen because large corporations don’t allow for higher-ups to approve every product, especially when they allow outside retailers, like Amazon. Public relations teams are meant to help clean up after messes like these. Unfortunately, none of the above retailers offered a good example of what this type of crisis communication should look like. Walmart and Amazon both went with a canned “not our fault, the product has been removed” statement, neither of which truly apologized to consumers. Party City took an even worse track. The store first deleted the mother’s post and then blocked her from their page, and followed suit with those who posted in support of her. The woman repeatedly tried to contact Party City directly and was ignored. Only after the story gained media attention did the store issue a statement, which offered to speak to her directly. However, the apology was marred by the store’s instance that the costume was one of their “most popular.”

So what should a retailer do when called out for an offensive Halloween costume? There’re three fairly simple steps:

  • Remove the outfit from sale immediately.
  • Issue an apology that admits the outfit was a mistake, and that the store understands why.
  • Go through the rest of the store’s inventory to ensure there are not any other costumes just waiting to induce outrage.


Of course, not all internet outrage deserves a response, but the above examples show stores clearly on the wrong side of the argument. Halloween also can be a chance to stretch some boundaries that businesses can’t during other times of the year, but it should be calculated and thought through. The holiday can be an opportunity for some unique publicity, but businesses have to make sure it’s of the fun variety, not the scary.

Amazon’s product visualization through press release

Amazon executives are typically a reclusive bunch. So its was a rare treat when Jeff Wilke, Amazon’s senior vice president of consumer business, took the stage this week at Seattle University as part of the Albers Executive Speaker Series.

In an hour-long talk, Wilke laid out the core leadership principles that make up the tech and online retail juggernaut.

Jeff Wilke is a chemical engineer who moved his young family to Seattle in 1999 to join Amazon as the senior vice president of consumer business.

Jeff Wilke is a chemical engineer who moved his young family to Seattle in 1999 to join Amazon as the senior vice president of consumer business.

Wilke’s appearance was rare, but his presentation format — PowerPoint — was also unusual. According to Wilke internal meetings at Amazon start with everyone in the room spending up to 45 minutes reading in silence as they digest detailed documents known as “narratives.”

“We write our thoughts down because we expect leaders to deep dive,” said Wilke.

Amazon believes so strongly in the power of bringing business visualizations to life by writing them down that the company’s new product concepts start with a press release.

“We try to write the headline and the press release that you’d want to use at the launch of a new product,” said Wilke, showing a slide of the initial press releases that managers conceived for products such as AmazonSmile and AmazonStudent. “It is a way to visualize the things that we want to build.”

Putting thoughts to paper. Reading those thoughts. Sharing and selling big ideas in written form. As our communication options continue to explode its incredible to hear that a company like Amazon still considers it its most powerful method.

Here are the 14 core leadership principles as described by Wilke and on Amazon’s Web site:

Customer Obsession
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

Invent and Simplify
Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here.” As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.

Are Right, A Lot
Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts.

Hire and Develop the Best
Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others.

Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards – many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.

Think Big
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

We try not to spend money on things that don’t matter to customers. Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention. There are no extra points for headcount, budget size, or fixed expense.

Vocally Self Critical
Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. Leaders come forward with problems or information, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Earn Trust of Others
Leaders are sincerely open-minded, genuinely listen, and are willing to examine their strongest convictions with humility.

Dive Deep
Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, and audit frequently. No task is beneath them.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Deliver Results
Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.