Nike's Boston Massacre Woes and Tips to Avoiding Bad PR

Nike Boston Massacre Shirt Image source:   

They say there's no such thing as bad publicity. If there were true, then companies wouldn't have to dish out big bucks for public relations experts. The fact of the matter is that bad publicity is terrible, so it's critical for a company to protect its reputation.  

Just recently, Nike ran into a sticky public relations situation because of one of its shirts. Nike had distributed a sports shirt that had the phrase "Boston Massacre," which included blood spatters. The phrase refers to the rivalry between New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox -- Yankees fans compared Boston's bad luck in the MLB series to the Boston Massacre of 1770 that pushed early colonists to start the Civil War.   It was in stores shortly before the Boston bombing tragedy. After the event, the shirt suddenly took on a much more sinister meaning.  

Nike responded swiftly by pulling the shirts from the distributor. Somewhat surprisingly, the move has made the t-shirts a highly prized commodity. One shirt went up on eBay and earned bids over $150,000 before eBay pulled the sale. The online bidding website pointed to its policy against offensive material.   Boston Massacre Shirt Image source:

Nike's had a bit of bad luck lately. Back in February, they had to pull an advertisement that featured Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius and the phrase, "I am the bullet in the chamber." Pistorius was charged with shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.  

Ultimately, it's impossible for companies to predict the future. A perfectly innocent phrase said today could sound negative or derogatory tomorrow because of an entirely unrelated event. Fortunately, there are still a few tricks you can use to minimize the chances that your company will print an unpopular message on your custom clothing.  

Nike I Am the Bullet in the Chamber Image source:

1. Get a second opinion. We occasionally say things without really thinking about all of the possible consequences. Running your ideas past your friends and coworkers will help you separate your great ideas from your not-so-great ideas.  

2. Beware inflammatory slogans. Sometimes, a company can get a lot of attention by pursuing edgy advertising campaigns. Other times, those plans backfire. Just recently, Hyundai caught some flak for airing a controversial suicide commercial. The commercial could have gone off without any major hitches, but these types of advertisements are definitely more prone to bad PR than something that wouldn't spark any controversy.  

3. When life gives you lemons... Don't get bummed out if you catch some bad PR. The best solution is to use the increased attention as a way to inform customers about the positive aspects of your organization. For example, in the extra media coverage following the whole Boston Massacre hooplah Nike could have donated to Boston bombing recovery organizations and released a new shirt in honor of the victims. A little while ago, a California restaurant transformed its negative Yelp reviews into a clever t-shirt design that attracted tons of new visitors. Remember: that which does not kill you makes you stronger!

Back to blog
1 of 5