PacSun's flag T-shirt: Patriotism turned on its head

A clothing retailer runs into trouble by producing and marketing a T-shirt that some found offensive.

It may be OK for the Netflix television series “House of Cards” to show the American flag flipped upside down, a traditional S.O.S. symbol of distress, in the opening credits, but when retailer Pacific Sunwear offered a similar T-shirt on Memorial Day weekend, the result was public revolt.

The T-shirt featuring the flipped flag in black and white was designed in collaboration with the Harlem, New York rapper A$AP Rocky, according to the shirt’s page, which has since been deleted from the company’s website.

According to Section 8a of the United States Flag Code, which governs how the US flag should be treated, “The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.” It is the interpretation of “distress” which has long been open to interpretation by artists, retailers and activists.

However, after mounting online pressure from the public, Pacific Sunwear, Inc. released the following statement on its Facebook page, “As a retailer grounded in youth culture, PacSun values artistic and creative expression through the brands that we sell in our stores. Out of respect for those who have put their lives on the line for our country, we have decided to stop selling the licensed flag T-shirt and are removing it from our stores and website immediately. We thank the men and women in uniform for their extraordinary service.”

“You’ve probably seen the flag and anarchy symbol on the runway at fashion week in New York City,” says Dan Baum, CEO of DBC, a public relations and social media firm, in an interview with the Monitor. “So this really isn’t a new idea. It dates back to the 60s.”

Back in October 1968, activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested in Washington, D.C. for wearing a shirt that looked like the flag.

In court, according to the website Open Jurist which contains a transcript, Hoffman’s defense attorney Gerald Lefcourt asked, “Is wearing a shirt dishonoring the flag? Does Uncle Sam, when he marches in the parade on July 4th, dishonor?”

“Uncle Sam himself is a national symbol, just as the flag is a national symbol, and one national symbol, recognized as such, cannot deface and defile and cast contempt upon another national symbol ... the government has a legitimate interest in maintaining the sanctity of its symbols,”  Prosecutor Benton Becker argued.

Hoffman testified, “I wore the shirt because I was going before the un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives, and I don’t particularly consider that committee American, and I don’t consider that House of Representatives particularly representative. And I wore the shirt to show that we were in the tradition of the founding fathers of this country.”

Mr. Baum adds, “If I’m PacSun, I don’t think this is a loss. I mean, who’s really heard of PacSun before? But now, people are talking about it.”

“Maybe the merchandisers thought it was funny and when the marketing team got the first blowback online, they pulled it,” Baum theorizes. “It’s a cheap way to get eyeballs online to be looking at your brand. But I would also categorize it as effective because here we are talking about it.”

This is not the same as when, in May, Under Armour produced and then removed its “Band of Ballers” shirt in which a tableau of teens erect a basketball hoop in a tribute to the iconic image of raising the flag at Iwo Jima, which backfired.

“The Under Armour shirt was more of a wink and a nod,” Baum says. “The backlash from that design was more a result of Under Armour’s designers being out of touch with the American public with that issue. While they should have foreseen it, PacSun was clearly trying to stir controversy. I mean, if you’re looking for really truly inflammatory sound bites and sort of politically incorrect PR stunts, look no further than rap.”

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