Zombies. Ghosts. Serial killers. These are some popular symbols of Halloween that are frequently seen in movies, haunted houses and decorations. However, what I find more frightening are some of the costumes that I see while trying to find my own “original” costume idea each Halloween. This year, I came across the most frightening costume of them all, not because of a scary mask or fake blood, but because it is poking fun at a serious mental illness that affects millions of people around the world. The “Anna Rexia” costume first caused some serious uproar back in 2011, when retailers like HalloweenStore.com and Ricky’s NYC began carrying the costume, manufactured by Dreamgirls International, but they stopped after a great deal of media backlash and thousands signed a petition on Change.org.
Now, two years later, this controversial and insensitive costume is apparently back up for sale on the website HalloweenParty13.com, which I discovered from a Facebook posting of a more recent Change.org petition. At first, all I could think about was how disgusting a costume like that is, and how I would judge anyone wearing it, but I want to turn this into a learning opportunity by relating this controversy to public relations. My question is: Did the companies handle the outrage and negative publicity surrounding this costume appropriately?
As I did my research, I found articles on news sites such as The Huffington Post and other blogs, about the resurrection of “Anna Rexia.” I saw on Buzzfeed that the retailer HalloweenStore.com posted a status to their Facebook page about one week ago, explaining that people should do research before signing a petition because the retailer hasn’t sold that costume since 2011. This status was calling out people who angrily emailed the store about their distaste, when they weren’t actually the retailers currently selling the costume. The wording was harsh, with certain words fully capitalized and many exclamation points, which detracts potential customers and pushes current customers away. The post has since been deleted.
During the original controversy in 2011, Dreamgirls International said the costume was a form of “dark humor,” and that people wearing it is a “matter of taste.” However, the company is now saying that the costume was discontinued in 2007 and the matter is now out of their hands. At first, Dreamgirls International was using the communication theory of framing, which highlights specific aspects of an issue and “frames” people’s perspective on it. The company was trying to downgrade the offensive costume as being humorous and describing themselves as a “company run by women for women”; that just wanted to create an “eccentric” way for a woman to express herself on Halloween. Now, they are denying all responsibility for any current sales of the costume. This denial is not only inconsistent, but it is the opposite of what any student in an introductory PR class would learn—don’t deny ownership of a problem.
I believe that neither of these companies handled the “Anna Rexia” backlash well. If you, the reader, were the spokesperson of either company, how would you handle this situation?