Update: Serpentine has since removed the ads and issued an apology.
When George Okoronkwo saw the email blast from Toronto clothing boutique The Serpentine, promoting its Black Friday Sale, his first thought was, "WTF? This can't be real. Nobody is that stupid."
That's because The Serpentine, located in the affluent Yorkville neighbourhood, has appropriated #BlackLivesMatter to sell its high end men's clothing.
An email from the shop uses the subject line "#BLACKFRIDAYSMATTER."
"All Sales Can't Matter Until Black Friday Sales Matter," it continues, and then features a large black and white image of what appears to be a civil rights protest, with the aforementioned hashtag superimposed in red all-caps.
The wording about the sale also uses activist-type language i.e. "mobilize locally; support globally; 20-40% in store only; Friday Nov. 25th to Sunday Nov. 27th." In fine print, it says "This message is brought to you and approved by Black Stephen."
The store's Instagram profile also features three images of the civil rights protest photos with the hashtag.
However there appears to be no link to an actual civil rights cause.
Reached by phone Wednesday, a man who described himself as " management" (but would not provide his name), became defensive when VICE questioned him about appropriating a Black Lives Matter slogan.
"What's the problem with that?" he demanded, seeming incredulous at the idea that the slogan is specific to Black Lives Matter. "How is it specific?"
When asked if the sale was connected to Black Lives Matter he said, "no, not at all actually."
When VICE called back for further comment, a man who identified himself as Paul, an owner, said he is white and the other owner, Stephen, is black.
"We're not going to address something so stupid. It's not any kind of ploy to sell clothing. We sell the highest end brands in the city and we have great customers, black, white, Chinese, Indian, every culture," he said.
Paul dismissed the critics as "people that don't shop at our store, people that are always trying to find the worst angle in everything."
"All of our campaigns, if you knew anything about our store, have always been plays of words... But now people are deciding to find a problem with it." Responding to the backlash on Instagram, the shop noted, "the colour palette of our product assortment is dark in nature and predominantly black."
Okoronkwo, who is black, told VICE the marketing scheme is insulting and the fact that one of the owners is black "just makes it more sad."
"The Black Lives Matter movement is already fighting an uphill battle to getting themselves to be taken seriously, which in itself is mind boggling, but when things like this come up it shows that companies like The Serpentine are missing the point or that they really just don't care about black lives."
Several Instagram comments posted Wednesday morning denounced the campaign as "tasteless," "tone deaf," and "a disgusting appropriation of people's struggle to sell clothes."
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