Really, Gap? Tone-Deaf MLK Sale Reinforces Stereotypes

5 years ago

I have a dream… that one day dark denim and light denim will be able to sit together on the same shelf.

Probably not what Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind when he delivered his famous speech on the Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. nearly 50 years ago. But the ubiquitous Gap clothing chain seems to think that is a perfectly reasonable application of the civil rights leader’s birthday.

Emails were sent out to Gap customers beginning Thursday, advertising the retailer’s MLK Event, featuring “up to 40% off select styles”.

Image Credit: Gap, Inc.

I'll admit I shop at the Gap, and am on their mailing list to receive notices of such sales. And I know that the legal holiday brings a day off of work and school for many people— making a convenient time to hit the mall, and that many retailers often time their markdowns to coincide with the holiday.

But to invoke MLK (and not even Dr. Martin Luther King, simply his initials) specifically to advertise a sale on jeans and chinos is tone-deaf, to say the least. Especially for a brand whose image is synonymous with preppy cubicle-wear. After all, Saturday Night Live once parodied the Valley girls (read: white girls) employed by the store to keep its stacks of t-shirts tidy. In a memorable Seinfeld episode, Elaine and her date realized that their assumptions about each other’s race were wrong and that they were both white; here’s the closing punchline.

“So we’re just a couple of white people?” the boyfriend asks.

“I guess,” Elaine concedes.

“You want to go to the Gap?”


The awkward juxtaposition isn’t lost on Twitter, resulting in some funny 140 character commentaries.

Ironically, the Gap started out during the Summer of Love in San Francisco, as a groovy mom-and-pop store offering only basic jeans and t-shirts for young hippies on the lower end of the generation gap. Anyone else remember the old TV jingle "Fall into the Gap"? But as the chain rapidly expanded in the 1990s, it was on the one hand, accused of unfair labor conditions in its overseas factories, and on the other hand, associated with donating profits to charity, such as with its (RED) logo shirts.

To be fair, the Gap didn’t have the most offensive MLK Day cross-promotion. A Southern California surf shop was awarded that dubious honor by AdWeek for its advertisement showing King’s face photoshopped onto the body of a surfer.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs at HapaMama and A Year (Almost) Without Shopping.

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