It’s back-to-school time. The debut of B.stroy’s New York Fashion Week line featuring collegiate-style sweatshirts fashioned with manufactured bullet holes hauntingly coincided with the release of a chilling advertisement by Sandy Hook parents that advises “knowing the signs” of gun violence.
Atlanta designers Brick Owens and Dieter Grams presented their unsettling spring/summer 2020 collection, “Samsara,” on Sept.15 during New York Fashion Week. A streetwear brand with a growing social media presence, B.stroy and their new sweatshirt collection sparked vehement backlash online. The most notable items in the collection were four hoodies featuring the names Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech and Stoneman Douglas that were laden with fake bullet holes. As most Americans all-too-painfully know, these four schools were the sites of four of the deadliest mass shootings to date. The death toll of these shootings combined is nearly 100 (ABC News, “The 11 mass deadly school shootings that happened since Columbine, 04.19.2019). Similarly styled sweatshirts are available on their website ranging from $110-410.
Fellow designer Grams stated to NBC News, “At B.stroy we have always used our platform to shed light and begin conversations on overlooked issues from reality. We wanted to make a comment on gun violence and the type of gun violence that needs preventative attention and what its origins are, while also empowering the survivors of tragedy through storytelling in the clothes.” However, there are no clear signs as to how this line “empowers” survivors or brings preventative attention. They could have, for example, chosen to donate proceeds from the line to victims of gun violence or towards preventative education. The main point appeared not to be empowerment, but rather shock value—in that regard, they were successful.
Comments under the photos posted to Instagram of the hoodies ranged from “inconsiderate” to “repulsive.” One Instagram user commented, “My tragedy is not your fashion.” In essence, the designers are being accused of profiting from tragedy. I believe they hoped to shed light on an issue they find important in a bold way. However, it’s not public awareness of gun violence that’s being avoided. It’s action that’s being avoided. B.stroy isn’t bringing light to an invisible issue and they aren’t adding anything to an already overcrowded dialogue.
There are certainly ways to go about using fashion to make a political statement— this is not it.
In a more mindful but equally disturbing approach to back-to-school merchandise, Sandy Hook Promise released a commercial on Sept. 18, 2019, titled “Back-to-School Essentials.” The organization’s commercial begins with cheerful kids showing off their new back-to-school supplies, including backpacks and brightly colored binders
It quickly turns dark when one student declares, “These headphones are just what I need for studying.” He places his headphones over his ears, blocking out the sounds of screams and chaos in the background—presumably noises of a shooting. Suddenly, students are sprinting desperately through the halls with new sneakers and brandishing shiny scissors and colored pencils as they crouch in corners and behind doors. One girl announces, “This jacket is a real must-have” as she ties off the doors to the gymnasium. A boy uses his new skateboard to smash a glass window.
The commercial only gets more disturbing: Next comes a girl using her tube socks as tourniquets to tie up her friend’s leg that is gushing blood. It culminates with a young girl in a bathroom stall, choked up and tearfully whispering, “I finally got my own phone to stay in touch with my mom” as she texts “I love you mom.” We hear a door open and footsteps approach. Fading to darkness, it ends with a black screen that reads, “It’s back to school time and you know what that means. School shootings are preventable when you know the signs.”
The video now has over 13.3 million views on YouTube. While it is certainly shocking
and induces a visceral reaction, its impact may not necessarily be as positive as it first appears. Reading and hearing about mass shootings on an almost weekly basis has numbed us to the brutality of these events. Does seeing an advertisement change the way we behave or does it further desensitize us by further normalizing the violence?
Dubbed a “clever, dark, and powerful PSA” by FastCompany, somehow the ad misses its mark by also taking shock value to the extreme. It’s definitely not an easy feat to successfully address gun violence in America in a significant and sensitive way.
The Sandy Hook Promise Foundation is an organization based in Newtown, Connecticut formed by the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting. They created the commercial. Its mission is to honor the victims of the deadly school shooting that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012 through “advocating for sensible state and federal violence prevention policy” (“About Us,” Sandy Hook Promise).
Co-founder of Sandy Hook Promise Nicole Hockley said, “We wanted this PSA to be a little bit different in terms of shocking parents into engagement.” It’s certainly shocking. But engaging? I’m not entirely convinced.
I’m curious who the target audience of the commercial is. If it’s anti-gun liberals who already support legislation for preventative gun violence measures, is it just unnecessarily traumatizing? If it’s pro-gun conservatives, how effective is it, really? If the accumulation of tragedies up to this point has not been sufficient to generate stricter gun legislation, I’m not convinced that one disturbing advertisement will.
I credit Sandy Hook Promise for attempting to add something to a stagnant conversation, but the horror has already been placed in front of us and change has not been implemented. The question is not about the exposure of horror—it’s about how can we make our arguments more persuasive.
The sweatshirts and the commercial are two very different ways of going about bringing attention to the ongoing crisis our country is in—will either work? They both attempt to use shock value to jolt audiences into action. Marketers try to latch onto cultural currency, as do propagandists and advocates in an attempt to find an access point into the consumer’s heart and mind.
As school rhythms pick up again, we are reminded in more ways than one of tragedies that continue to take place. Projects like the B.stroy sweatshirts continue to commercialize and sensationalize gun violence, whereas the commercial is symptomatic of a culture that is desensitized to a distressing degree. These tragedies cannot be condensed for public consumption, and they certainly shouldn’t be for sale either.