Back in March 2012 just ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, the shoe giant Nike launched two new beer-themed shoes. (Because, you know, beer is what I think of when I think of tennis shoes. Seriously. Makes perfect sense.) One of the shoes was called “The Guinness” (it was black with a brown swoosh).
The other was called “The Black and Tan.”
Oh sure, we Americans know this as a drink—a blend of a pale ale and a dark beer, usually Guinness. But in Ireland that drink is known as a half and half. That’s because the phrase black and tan has a different connotation in Ireland.
The Black and Tans—so called due to the mismatched color of their uniforms, hurriedly thrown together from the tan pants of leftover army uniforms and black shirts from police uniforms—were a paramilitary group brought in by the British to suppress the revolution in Ireland in 1920–1921. Most were hardened World War I veterans; many were thugs. They became infamous for their brutality—burning villages to the ground, for example, and murdering civilians, particularly Catholics.
It was not that long ago, and the Irish remember.
The Black and Tans were notorious, they were hated, and the name itself remains a pejorative, in Ireland, for the British. (It should be noted the unrestrained violence of the Black and Tans alienated public opinion in Great Britain, too, all the way up to the king.)
And none of this is a secret.
For Nike to name an expensive shoe the Black and Tan shows a level of insensitivity that’s hard for me to fathom. One critic said it was comparable to call the shoe the al-Qaeda. What were they thinking? No one all along the line of approvals gave a thought to google the phrase? This sort of search is standard operating procedure when naming a new product. We have the technology, folks.
The company subsequently apologized. But it is no stranger to controversy—just google Nike + sweatshop or +child labor or +Beatles or +Chinese dragon and you’ll see what I mean. It was forced to remove a T-shirt line that featured double entendres for drug use. This makes me wonder if it’s all carefully calculated. Nike sales grew steadily through 2011 and 2012. Is it true there’s no such thing as bad publicity?
* Similarly, don’t order an Irish Car Bomb on St. Patrick’s Day (or any time, really). Imagine naming a drink—say, a Bloody Mary with 2 stalks of celery—a “Nine-Eleven.” Car bombs happened to real people, they were acts of terrorism, and any way you look at it, it’s a slur. Green beer is bad enough.
This post ran on my other blog back in 2012.