Under Armour did the right thing by acting quickly to stop selling a T-shirt with a design that prompted a social media firestorm and apologizing, marketing experts said.
The design on the "Band of Ballers" shirt resembled the iconic World War II image of Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, but with basketball players raising a hoop.
The Baltimore-based company pulled the shirt off its retail website after receiving complaints that it was disrespecting veterans by using the historic moment to market its basketball gear.
"We are a proud military family and you have lost our business," read one post on Under Armour's Facebook page. "Shame on you for trying to cash in on the sacrifices of our military. Athletes are not heroes, they are grossly overpaid people that for the most part have no clue what it means to work hard and sacrifice."
"Under Armour has the utmost respect and admiration for the men and women on active duty and veterans who have served our country. As such, we deeply regret and apologize that a t-shirt that was not reflective of our values in honoring and supporting our country's heroes went on sale. We have taken immediate action to remove it from retail and will take great measures to ensure this does not happen again. Supporting those who serve our country has been part of our brand's DNA since the very beginning, and through our partnerships and by working directly with military organizations, it will always serve as the foundation of our efforts to give back."
Under Armour did not respond to a request late Monday for additional comment.
Marketing experts agreed that the company was smart to react quickly to the negative public opinion.
"I don't think they expected that" negative reaction, said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. "I guess you can see it was a little in bad taste, but in one sense it sort of celebrates our military in that event. In another sense, it trivializes it."
Thanks to social media, "when something like this comes out, it travels like wildfire and … tends to turn controversy into something worse," he said.
It's not the first time Under Armour has found itself in a controversy regarding a military apparel design. In 2013, the one-game Northwestern University football uniforms the company made to honor veterans and raise money and awareness for the Wounded Warrior Project drew ire from critics who said the helmet, gloves and cleats appeared to be splattered with streaks of blood.
Both Under Armour and Northwestern defended the uniform, which also used elements of the American flag, saying it was inspired by a flag that had flown proudly for a long period of time. Northwestern apologized that some people could misinterpret the design but used the uniform anyway. At the time, Under Armour highlighted its ongoing relationship with the Wounded Warrior Project.
Under Armour is far from the only apparel maker that has come under fire for fashions deemed controversial.
Urban Outfitters faced criticism earlier this year for selling a gray and white striped tapestry with a pink triangle that was said to look like Holocaust uniforms given to gay men. Last fall the retailer sold a "vintage" Kent State University sweatshirt stained and blotched with red marks that many perceived as blood. Four students were killed and nine injured when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on an anti-war protest in 1970.
The idea of the Iwo Jima design likely bubbled up in the first place because of the company's propensity to push the envelope and because it strives to appeal to the millennial generation, which may have a vastly different view of military service than older generations, said Bob Leffler, president of the Leffler Agency, a Baltimore advertising firm.
"Let's face it — this generation is draft-free, military obligation-free, and they don't think of it the same way we did," said Leffler, who is in his late 60s. "The ad business is exuberant. It rewards outside-the-box ideas."
At Under Armour, "their job is to stay in tune with and be relevant to" young people, Leffler said. "Their job is not to stay in tune with people 55-plus."
While some people continued to criticize the company on social media, others praised it for acting promptly. And some wondered what all the fuss was about.
"What is so bad about a backyard game of basketball; which fosters teamwork and camaraderie," one person wrote on Facebook. "What is so disrespectful about an image that may help to subtly remind people of the brave acts of men…?"