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Facing outcry from educators, Kenneth Cole to remove billboard

Hundreds of angry educators from across the country seem to have taught the clothing retailer Kenneth Cole a lesson about diction—and union politics.

Late last week we broke the news about a company billboard that invoked a loaded education policy issue using a slogan many teachers viewed as an attack on their profession.

This weekend teachers and advocates responded, in a flurry of posts on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and a petition 600 signatures strong, calling for a boycott of Cole’s clothing company. Even national union leader Randi Weingarten waded into the fray with Twitter posts criticizing the company, which is headed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s brother-in-law.

The company has now responded. This afternoon, Kenneth Cole Productions used Twitter to send a public message to the creator of the petition, a D.C. teacher-turned-activist, Sabrina Stevens Shupe, that it plans to remove the billboard.

“We misrepresented the issue – one too complex for a billboard – and are taking it down,” the company posted from its Twitter account, @KennethCole.

This weekend, the company posted a different Twitter message clarifying that the ad campaign’s “Intent is to stimulate debate, not pit teachers against students.” The message now appears to have been deleted. The company has not responded to a request for comment today.

But some teachers and advocates say the opposite message came off in the billboard, which reads, “Teachers’ Rights vs. Students’ Rights…” and directs viewers to a website that asks, “Should underperforming teachers be protected?”

“Teachers and students both deserve respect; however, they both have different roles in education. And they are not opponents,” wrote Joann Mickens, an education advocate in Mississippi, on the petition website.

Dozens of advocates joined the call for a boycott of the company, called Kenneth Cole Productions, writing about it on Twitter with the hashtag #boycottkennethcole.

“Don’t pit teachers against students,” Weingarten tweeted, “and Take down your hurtful ad, Kenneth Cole!”

A Queens high school teacher said the billboard’s effect was to “trash” the teaching profession. “Our fondest wish for children in our care is that they grow up,” the teacher wrote in a blog post. “[Kenneth Cole Productions is] hardly doing anyone any favors.”

A GothamSchools commenter posted a letter the commenter sent to the company.

“I have long bought Kenneth Cole products because of the quality and style you offer, and I have also liked that your company does take public stands on important social issues, but this campaign is something I would not have expected your company to be involved in,” the commenter said. “Unfortunately, you have lost a long-time, loyal customer with this ad campaign.”

Boycotts are often ineffective at cutting into a company’s revenues, but can still put pressure on one to change its practices or political messages, according to Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who has researched the effects of boycotts. He said the boycott could damage the company’s reputation, if the billboard’s perceived message really was unintended.

“If the message is not clear, or confusing, or doesn’t resonate with its core audience, then it could backfire and create problems for its reputation in the future,” King said.

A writer suggested that, in tying its brand identity to the political “movement du jour,” the Kenneth Cole campaign is part of a trend of “elite” companies wading into education reform debates.

New York City’s United Federation of Teachers offered a tongue-in-cheek response that reflected the loaded political implications of the ad’s language.

“We can only hope that the company’s fashion sense is more sophisticated than its treatment of complicated educational and political issues,” a spokesman said in a statement.

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