I must confess, I recently got sucked into a fruitlessly emotional thread on Facebook about how terrible Old Navy is for insulting a Vet…on Veteran’s Day Weekend, no less. Being a self-righteous veteran myself, I read the posted story about how this innocent veteran, Aaron Bennett, had gone into an Old Navy store in Jacksonville, Florida, noticed one of the teenage employees wearing an old Marine Corps tunic (The Marine Corps, is, technically, part of the Department of the Navy so I guess they could argue there is relevance to “Old Navy”), went up to the store manager and courteously and helpfully mentioned that this was not only illegal (according the the 2005 Stolen Valor Act) but offensive to veterans, such as himself. For his civic trouble the poor man was ejected from the store and banned from shopping at an Old Navy or the Orange Park Mall ever again.
Of course, there was hue and cry for boycotts of Old Navy and all Gap/Banana Republic/Etc. stores owned by Gap, Inc. How dare they insult our Returning Heroes! I myself was ready to grab my own pitchfork.
Then, as some of the less hot-headed commenters on the FB post started pointing out (the killjoys), there was another side to this story. What? Don’t tell me that! I’m having too much fun being mad and adding Gap to my Buycott app on my iPhone.
The Facts (how I hate those!)
For one thing, it is not illegal to wear an old uniform coat or even medals that aren’t yours (unless you stole them). Heck, I used to do this when I was young (I wore a ball cap with my dad’s Naval Officer’s insignia on it to junior high school and when I was going to high school in London, I had even scored an old Coldstream Guards red tunic–sweet–just like Sergeant Pepper). The attempt to make this illegal in 2005 by a jingoistic act of Congress (The Stolen Valor Act) was ruled unconstitutional as a violation of the 1st Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. It was then reintroduced in a no-better-things-to-do Congress as an amended, much scaled down act, which only forbade the wearing of medals (not the uniform) for the specific purposes of monetary fraud. Which certainly wasn’t the case here. Had Mr. Bennett, the self-appointed Vigilante of Veteran’s Valor, done his homework before getting his panties all twisted, he might have avoided the misunderstanding.
Something doesn’t add up.
For another thing, according to Old Navy, the Orange Park Mall, and the Sheriff’s Department of Duval County (who, for some reason had been called to deal with a “polite” customer–hmm), Mr. Bennett was not banned from Old Navy or the mall or anywhere. And why if, as he claimed, he was only politely pointing out a statutory violation to the store’s manager, would that store manager have felt threatened enough to call mall security, who then felt it necessary to call the cops? Something doesn’t add up. It was, as it turned out, only Mr. Bennett’s assertion that he was being polite or that he was banned.
I have to think that there may have been another impression of his behavior. Or his criteria for politeness. One he hadn’t intended. But I wasn’t there.
And the Gap, Inc. has issued very respectful statements that their companies meant no disrespect to Mr. Bennett, and have nothing but the highest respect to the military and veterans (Jacksonville’s a big Navy town, for crying out loud!). Which was exactly the right thing to do: Don’t piss off a customer, even if he’s actually acting somewhat less than polite (they didn’t even say that).
And, one more thing. For teenagers to wear articles of military apparel does not even disrespect the military or veterans, Stolen Valor Act or not. Teenagers have always done this…usually from their parents’ closets, as I did when I was a kid,and as my own daughter has done with my old Navy (as opposed to Old Navy) flight jacket. It’s just supposed to be cool. A fashion statement (which is how 6 of the 9 Justices defined it in their 2012 majority ruling). Earning “the right” to wear such things has nothing to do with it. Just as with the employees of an Apple Store wearing black polo shirts, or of UPS wearing brown overalls, or anybody with a job that has to wear a uniform, they didn’t “earn the right” to wear those things–it was just part of their job.
And, for those of us who have actually served in the military, we didn’t have a choice about wearing our uniforms; it was also part of the job, for which we got paid (and great health, retirement, and vacation benefits to boot–at least while we were on active duty). There was no “earning the right” to do so–getting through eight weeks of boot camp was about the only “right” we “earned.” And most of us don’t think of ourselves as valorous. Only a tiny minority of people who are or were in the military have actually had to face the enemy shooting at them. Those are the valorous ones. And they usually got medals to recognize it.
But what’s this got to do with marketing?
But this is a blog about marketing, and following the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing (and shamelessly plugging my book). From my view, if that Old Navy store manager made a marketing mistake, it was to not enforce the company’s own dress code for employees. Unless Old Navy is selling military tunics (as the original Banana Republic used to do), then the clerks should be wearing the clothing that is being sold there. They are models as well as clerks. And their products are what are on the racks. So I’m sure there’s some renewed dress code enforcement going on at Old Navy. This is the First Unbreakable Rule of Marketing: Consistency. If you’re selling clothes; wear those clothes.
As far as dealing with an irate customer, it sounds like The Gap did the right thing. Their statements were courteous and supportive of veterans. They were never disrespectful in these public statements of Mr. Bennett, and didn’t ban him from their stores. They recognized that others were watching (though a lot would rather be mad instead). And they handled it appropriately.
In fact, have you ever witnessed an irate customer at a store? Didn’t you pay attention to how the management addressed them? How they dealt with their problem?
Whenever this happens, it’s actually a gift to you if you’re the retailer. It gives you an opportunity to put on a little marketing theater, to show off how you deal with unhappy customers. And everybody notices. If you come across as sympathetic, patient, generous, and agreeable, you are obeying the Sixth Rule: Give Love to Get Love. You may or may not be getting love from the irate customer at the moment, but you are going to get it from everybody standing in line witnessing it. If the customer refuses to be placated when offered what seems like a more-than-generous conciliation, then he or she loses sympathy, which flips, by default to you, the store. That’s a sweet opportunity.
Everybody is so ready to get mad and stay mad.
I don’t know what’s going on in the world lately. Maybe it’s because of the bad economy, or climate change, or overpopulation, or the fear-mongering 24-hour news media, but everybody seems so ready to fly off the handle about nothing. Everybody’s looking to take offense, mostly on behalf of somebody else (gays, veterans, patriots, women, people of color, white people, Christmas trees, God-fearing Christians…pick your category). I’ll bet I even get indignant comments on this post (from one of the six or seven people who read it).
And because of this electrified atmosphere, everybody’s ready to launch a boycott or set up a Facebook page to protest something. I’m no different. As I said, I actually have an app on my mobile thingie that assists me in boycotting products whose companies support (or seem to support by staying neutral) policies I don’t like. A pasta maker’s CEO says he doesn’t approve of gay marriage; boycott that brand. A fast food chairman says the same thing on a talk show; boycott his chicken, or, if you agree with him, eat mor chikin. A clerk in a store wears something a customer takes offense at, boycott that store. This just ends up hurting the thousands of innocent employees who are just trying to keep their 30-hour-a-week-minimum-wage-with-no-benefits jobs so they can feed their families. And the millions of little girls in sweatshops in Bangladesh risking their lives in horrible conditions so you can buy a $10 T-shirt.
The other problem for us trying to just get by in this prickly world is that we can’t even buy a stupid T-shirt without making a political statement. It’s just exhausting–for the poor marketers, for their companies, for us customers, for their employees, for everybody.
Let’s just calm down, okay? Let’s not be so ready to get our panties all twisted.