A T-shirt mocking the cocaine epidemic in Colombia has been yanked off the shelves of Guess clothing stores after igniting a boycott by Colombians and other consumers who found the garment offensive.
The controversy was sparked after the chain began selling a black tank top with the slogan "Ski Colombia" emblazoned across the front and the phrase "Always Plenty of Fresh Powder," which boycotters say refers to the country's reputation for being the world's largest producer of cocaine, directly beneath it.
"The shirt is offensive because Colombia has so many other things to offer, but we never get credit for it. It's always back to the cocaine jokes," said Erika Becker-Medina, the 29 year old who spearheaded the campaign. "I'm not saying we don't have cokeheads in Colombia, but it's far more prevalent here in the States as far as usage, and I just think it's pointing the finger at the wrong person."
The company finally issued a statement last week after being bombarded with e-mails and phone calls. "Guess has historically prided itself on being young and adventurous, and therefore we design merchandise that appeals to this customer demographic," spokesperson Tara Swansen said. "The perceived intention of the slogan on the shirt is in the mind of the reader, and this can result in a broad range of interpretations. We sincerely apologize if this item has offended you in any way. Please understand that it was never our intention. To that end, this item will no longer be available for sale as it has been removed from all Guess retail stores and from our Web site."
Becker-Medina, who works for the Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., first noticed the objectionable tee on display at her local mall nearly a month ago. The store appeared to have a Latin-themed showcase, with shirts featuring Tijuana, Costa Rica and Panama, but the Colombian tee was the only item that had a negative connotation attached to it, she says.
"The fact of the matter is Colombia isn't the only country with cocaine, but it's just the stigma we've always had," she said. "I think Colombians are used to the jokes because people can be pretty insensitive, but to have a national clothing company put it on a shirt, someone needs to say something. This isn't being sold by some guy by the beach."
Becker-Medina notified Guess of her concern, but when her concerns were not alleviated, she e-mailed friends and family, asking for a boycott of the company. Soon, her letter began circulating across the country and, eventually, elsewhere.
One Colombian-born, American-raised man, Jorge Barrera, wrote Guess: "Has it become hip for a U.S.-based company to endorse Colombian cocaine? Perhaps they are seeking some shock publicity. Perhaps I should distribute this shirt to an elementary school of your choosing — how is that for shock publicity?"
Becker-Medina said she was stunned by the outpouring of help from the public. "I didn't realize how supportive everyone would be, especially those who aren't Colombian," she said. She says one woman wrote a letter to the Colombian ambassador to ask for his support in the boycott.
"All I really wanted was for Guess to pull the shirt from the market and issue a statement of apology," she said. "For me, that would be enough, if they said, 'Pardon our ignorance.' These people know they're marketing to young people, and for them to write slogans like that [is] pretty irresponsible.
"This boycott showed people that you can, and maybe this will encourage people not to give up and to stand for what they believe in," Becker-Medina said of the victory.