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Fashion retailer Kenneth Cole is no stranger to social media controversy, having jumped on the back of the Egyptian riots to promote a clothing line earlier this year.

Hashtag hijacking can go badly wrong, and there was predictable outrage at the time, given the gravity of the situation in Egypt.

Equally, jumping on the back of other serious causes isn’t always a good idea. In this respect, Kenneth Cole’s new social media campaign is playing with fire.

Called ‘What Do You Stand For’, one half of the dedicated website encourages people to take part in “a series of provocative debates” which it hopes will “educate and inspire us all to understand relevant social issues from a larger perspective”. The other half of the website encourages people to buy clothes from Kenneth Cole. No surprise there.

The debates are focused on four divisive topics: guns, pro-choice, gay rights and war. These four topics are then presented as individual sections, with three sub-debates (I can only access the first one as the Flash site isn’t working properly for me). 

The sub-debates are anchored around a question, such as whether or not the government should have the right to choose who can or can’t have an abortion. Two Facebook ‘Like’ buttons are placed directly underneath the question, alongside ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ labels, allowing visitors to participate. Facebook users can also leave a comment.

One comment reads: “This site is so beyond liberally biased it’s amazing. There are 12 questions and all of them are completely loaded so as to make it sound illogical to choose the answer they do not desire.”

Loaded questions aside, it seems remarkably crass for a retailer to align deeply serious issues - such as the right to have an abortion - with throwaway questions along the lines of whether the ‘black on black’ look is on trend for a man. 

As Matthew Curry says: “Dear @KennethCole, boiling gay rights down to two Facebook Like buttons in order to shift clothes is a pretty shitty thing to do.”

What do you think? Is provocation and controversy something that should be used to boost sales? Is this a brave move, or is it a dumb move?

Chris Lake

Published 15 August, 2011 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

Comments (12)

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It's never a dumb move if its getting publicity and 'working' in the sense that it's driving customer feedback and fueling interest in the business.

But it's not a very nice move. Retailers and clothing lines have and do align to social and political movements and campaigns, and there's nothing wrong with that in principle.

But perhaps this is too transparently publicity hungry. And dumbing down issues into questions with simple answers doesn't necessarily "education and inspire" either.

about 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hmm interesting one.

I'm not going to go down the emotional reactionary route here so I'll try and see the positives.

Cynicism aside and putting the Egypt thing to the back of the mind, you can argue that the debates they are encouraging are important. I like the idea of a brand using its influence to engage people in serious discussion. However, the delivery just doesn't work for me.

When you click into the debate topics, there are no direct selling messages. It's a page dedicate to that question. However, the video content is a tad trite - on the War page the message is "Wear not war" as if wearing clothes is going to keep us out of war. I think the obsessive need for consumerism and the pursuit of materialism is one of the key drivers for war, so the message has a huge potential pi** off factor.

Whether doing this in the context of retail is appropriate is another thing. The link on the debate pages to the retail shop jars somewhat - I would have seen this website in a more positive light if there had been no connection with product selling and it was designed to engage people with important topics with brand awareness as the side effect.

Still if it gets people talking, debating, discussing the issues, isn't that a positive? Are we just too cynical to allow brands to do something potentially provocative? I'd be interested to see the difference in opinion between US and UK readers - I think in the UK we're far more cynical and doubting over intentions, sometimes rightly, other times not.


about 5 years ago


Sean Walsh

Cheap way to web traffic & publicity. Totally trivialises important debate for the sake of commercial gain.

What a horrible, horrible idea.

No such thing as bad publicity I guess is the 'thinking'.

about 5 years ago


Nick Stamoulis

I think Kenneth Cole is playing with fire. This might get them a lot of attention, but will it be good attention? Does the old adage of "any press is is good press" still apply in today's world of social media? They are walking a very thin line.

about 5 years ago

David Kohn

David Kohn, Head of Multichannel at Snow+Rock Group

I've always been keen on the idea of retailers taking a proactive stance on social issues. Cole's professed stance is that he wants to provide a forum for discussion, and there is certainly activity on the site. He is also implicitly taking sides by the phrasing of the questions so is making an (albeit somewhat subtle) statement of what he believes in.
The false move - and it's a big one - is devaluing the debate by placing it alongside the 'what do you stand in' fashion piece. This not only trivialises it, but also makes the whole thing appear to be a commercial gimmick. As James says above, it would have done Kenneth Cole's brand and personal credentials a lot better to have just created a branded discussion forum and let people get on with it. Indeed I'd like to see more UK companies do this sort of thing.

about 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

"The false move - and it's a big one - is devaluing the debate by placing it alongside the 'what do you stand in' fashion piece" - I think that is the key point, it is too obvious it is jumping on the back of bigger issues to sell clothes, it is good that businesses have some kind of social conscious but not just to blatantly sell more.

I can see his thought process; tagging Egyptian protests didn’t work, but hang on it did get a lot of publicity, social media and emotive issues seem to work well, lets exploit some big issues again but don’t do anything naughty that might give us bad press.

Whilst there is nothing strictly wrong with what they have done (unlike their previous effort) this it just looks too cynical especially with their history. Having their logo and a link to their site at the bottom is all they should do otherwise it just doesn’t look genuine

about 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

As well what they could do is push the debate on anything they publish and pay to promote the debate itself, so they are pushing people to it (and gaining a positive association) but not blatantly selling on the same page

about 5 years ago


Ivor Morgan

Lets remember, this isn't about creating a genuine and, to the brand, irrelevant set of debates; it's about generating publicity.

And what a carefully thought out way to do it!

This looks like a company that understands social marketing and hasn't fallen for all the nonsense spouted about keeping it separate from - heaven forfend - actually "selling".

They are generating awareness and quite rightly want to make it easy for people to act on that awareness by buying.

Will it cheese off a few limp, wet-lipped professional objectors? I hope so - the resulting publicity will be even greater.

about 5 years ago


Brandon Shockley

Has Charlie Sheen started writing copy? #winning

about 5 years ago



i did not read all comments as it was long ans i am tight on time so i do not know if someone said this earlier. My 2 cents:
the ancient Greeks and Romans saw great developments and became great civilizations in history because they encouraged public debate, curiosity, and discussion regarding the issues which comes to commmunity and life. As compared to other non-verbal ancestors, for example monkeys and gorillas), humans have the gift of speech and articulation.
Those who encourage public discussion is doing a service. How can it become a disgrace to discuss those issues- gays, abortion, tax..- on a fashion website? Disgrace to whom? Why?
Does not make sense.
To whom is it a disgrace when one magazine discusses gays, fashion, politics, abortion AND economy on its pages??
Nonsense.. isn't it?

So only the "serious" people should go to look for gay discussions in "serious" sites. And the "carefree" people who check out fashion trends should not be bothered with what discussions go on in the intellectual society?
Nonsense. Yeah, it sounds like that to me.
For me I would not want to remain in the jungle if I have the chance to speak out...
(p.s. I am neither gay nor male. Just a normal heterosexcual gal with a normal guy.)

about 5 years ago



Interesting article. Like most of you I found the campaign pretty shocking, but effective. However I tried to look at it objectively and I wrote my conclusions on my blog: Social Media and Social Justice (click my name to get there). Take a look and comment if you have five minutes. I'm quite new to the area so I'd love it if you shared your thoughts.

about 5 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

@Ivor - The point is that he has done it in the past with the Egypt twitter hashtags, trivialising a serious issue in order to sell some clothes. If it was another company doing what they are doing now it probably wouldn’t be being discussed on this post, it is because of his past behaviour that it is getting attention. I know people say any publicity is good publicity and I don’t actually think this is too bad, just seems very crass considering his past and makes the apology given rather hollow. By making it obvious they are trying to sell things it devalues any good sentiment they get from talking about these issues, it just seems too fake. Would someone who just a few months ago was prepared to cash in on Egypt’s plight be totally reformed and wanting to make a genuine change for good with no self interest... I don’t think so.

As a for being a ‘limp, wet-lipped professional objector’ I wouldn’t consider having a moral stance over trying to make someone else richer wet-lipped.

Out of interest does anyone know what agency Kenneth Cole use?

about 5 years ago

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