09/06/2013 02:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Kenneth Cole's 'Awearness' Problem: Why Confusing Shoes And Syria Isn't Punny

"Awearness" is not just another comment on Kenneth Cole's confusing use of puns, politics and womenswear, but also the title of his book and volunteer organization, as well as a perfect symbol of the flagrant conflation of current events and brand promotion which was in full swing yet again Wednesday afternoon.

When Cole took to Twitter to flippantly dismiss the possibility of military action in Syria, he later claimed that he was simply trying to shed light on the subject.

kenneth cole tweet

As Jason Linkins put it, without Cole's handy cue to chat about current events, "we would have had to rely on the president, the secretary of State, both houses of Congress, every major newspaper, all of the cable news channels and thousands of articles on the Internet to provoke that discussion."

It's Fashion Week, so Cole probably drank one too many of those bottled coffees people hand out at shows, and maybe it might have been possible that he was trying to provoke a conversation about the fact that our nation just might go to war with Syria... except his tweet was also a blatant attempt to peddle shoes.

That's what's so outrageous about Cole's self-defense.

When pretty much everyone found the idea of trivializing war whilst promoting "pumps" offensive, the designer did not back down. Instead, he took to an alternate medium to defend his actions: a self-righteous Instagram video that seemed to refer to not only the tweet in question, but to his longtime penchant for broadcasting political beliefs in conjunction with brand promotion.

While incorporating an especially sassy use of the sassy finger, Cole says:

"I've always used my platform to provoke dialogue about important issues, including HIV/AIDS, war and homelessness. I'm well aware of the risks that come with this approach, and if this encourages further awareness and discussion of critical issues, then all the better."

This is not the first time the designer has confused serious world events with entrepreneurship. In 2011, Cole tweeted: "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at -KC." Although, at least that little burst of offensive frivolty was coupled with an apology: "Re Egypt tweet: we weren't intending to make light of a serious situation. We understand the sensitivity of this historic moment -KC."

So, does the lack of apology in conjunction with this more recent incident mean Cole was trying to make light of the situation in Syria? Could he have been too busy waging war on war (and apparently HIV) to see the error of his ways? Actually, almost definitely not, because if Cole learned anything from his charming little Cairo moment, it was not the value of an apology, but the fact that offensive Tweets are actually really good for business.

As Cole said in an interview with Details magazine:

"I did [write the Cairo tweet]. I write most of them myself, often as people around me cringe. Billions of people read my inappropriate, self-promoting tweet, I got a lot of harsh responses, and we hired a crisis-management firm. If you look at lists of the biggest Twitter gaffes ever, we're always one through five. But our stock went up that day, our e-commerce business was better, the business at every one of our stores improved, and I picked up 3,000 new followers on Twitter. So on what criteria is this a gaffe? [Laughs] Within hours, I tweeted an explanation, which had to be vetted by lawyers. I'm not even sure I used the words I'm sorry--because I wasn't sorry."

And if that seems unsettling, consider the fact that the two-year-old Cairo tweet wasn't his first swing at using controversy to boost sales. The fact of the matter is, Cole has been engaging in this sort of behavior for nearly a decade, and Twitter is just the latest manifestation of his inability to understand that his "platform" of selling clothes should not be used as a means of broadcasting political opinions in conjunction with blatant advertising. It is important to note that the Syria tweet came from Cole's personal account, whereas the Cairo tweet was sent on behalf of the Kenneth Cole brand. Although, are the two really all that distinct?

Cole is directly associated with the Kenneth Cole brand (if only in name alone), but he has also been using billboard advertisements (plastered with the typographical presentation of "Kenneth Cole" that has become a de facto logo for the store) as a means of projecting political messages since the early 2000s.


With such lines as, "If gas prices continue to rise, why not switch pumps?" and "Help re-pair the lives of the homeless" (both with a messages about shoes), "Weapons of mass distraction" (featuring an image of sunglasses) and "Pledge allegiance to the bag, your country needs you ... to shop." Cole initially combined politics with advertising, but has since taken to using the ad space simply to promote his beliefs (such as he choose to do with the election month additions to the New York's West Side Highway).

new york fashion week

More recently, Cole has also attempted to latch his brand to the gay rights movement -- a more admirable version of the behavior, and yet still another example of his penchant for using serious current events to sell textiles.

These billboards are aggravating even for someone who aligns with the political viewpoints that they espouse, and not just because they often include lazy puns. The idea of spreading sociopolitical messages alongside a blatantly vested interest in promoting one's brand is inherently flawed, regardless of intent. Whether Cole has been attempting to spread awareness or "awearness," his attempt to use his platform to "provoke conversation" across various public spaces has been consistently misguided, ultimately a failure of advocacy, advertising... and copy-writing.