Branded by Blood: An Open Letter to Kevin Plank, President & CEO of Under Armour, Inc.
Dear Mr. Plank:
Our organization represents tens of thousands of people who care deeply about the conservation of black bears, other species of wildlife, and the habitats that sustain them. Through unprecedented physical protests, a formidable presence on social media, and strategic coordination with other activists, we played a significant role in leveraging popular pressure against Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, contributing to a very rare case in which a hunting season was cancelled.
Contrary to the stereotypes propagated by many hunters on your Facebook pages, the people who rallied to our cause, and helped to stop Florida from hunting black bears this year, came from all walks of life and political persuasions. In fact, the remarkable breadth and depth of our coalition was essential to its success. As nature lovers, many of them engage in outdoor pursuits and purchase apparel, for themselves and their families, suitable for those activities. Some of them were already familiar with your brand; some were not. But to all of them, Under Armour (UA) has just become as toxic as British Petroleum (BP) in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that permanently polluted the Gulf of Mexico.
The pollution of your corporate image by Josh Bowmar's grotesque spearing of a black bear in Alberta can not be “cleaned up” simply by terminating his wife as a brand ambassador. While the sale of hunting apparel is only a small part of your revenue stream, your decision to penetrate that particular market will forever haunt your company, as consumers worldwide remember the penetration of an innocent animal by a vicious weapon, custom-made to showcase the bloodthirsty narcissism of a man whose body seems to have developed at the expense of his character.
Much as BP cut corners in its pursuit of profits, imposing massive, unacceptable costs on society as a whole, your company's pursuit of revenue from the niche market of hunting apparel has caused you to overlook issues of ethics, ecology, and democratic accountability that matter a great deal to the wider public you wish to reach. It is possible that you have been poorly advised by executives, particularly Chief Project Officer Kip Fulks, who are too personally invested in the “outdoor” project to present you with much-needed context about the realities of hunting. In that spirit, we would like to offer you the following observations, and hope that you will heed them in your business planning.
Hunters: A Deadly Demographic
Hunters represent approximately 6% of U.S. society. In some sparsely populated western states they may account for over 20% of the population, but in more densely populated states like California and New Jersey they number below one percent. Despite being a special interest group, for many decades they have enjoyed a grossly disproportionate influence over wildlife-management decisions at the state and (for Canada) provincial level. More recently, however, this dominance of “consumptive users” has become increasingly unpopular with the general public, as attitudes toward animals continue to evolve, and people become aware of their legal rights as citizen-stakeholders. Modern science, exemplified by the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, increasingly proves that animals are sentient individuals, with rich emotional lives much like our own and complex social relationships deserving of respect. Ecologists have come to understand that predators, long demonized by hunters as competitors for “their” game, are essential for the maintenance of balanced ecosystems. And legally, wild animals in the United States and Canada belong to all the people, not just the minority who wish to kill them. The allocation of animal lives to hunters, particularly when decisions are made by agencies that do not represent other interests, has become offensive democratically as well as ethically.
Thus, while the hunting of ungulates (deer, elk, caribou, etc.) for subsistence or food remains broadly supported, the hunting of charismatic megafauna has become highly controversial. As one of your other sponsored hunters, Cameron Hanes, noted in a personal Facebook post about the Bowmar affair, the age of social media has changed the environment in which hunters operate. Ten years ago, Walter Palmer probably could have killed Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe with nary a murmur of protest. Attention-seekers like Josh Bowmar would have shared their antics, if at all, only within a coterie of like-minded individuals. What happened in the woods stayed in the woods. But those days are over. And with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service planning to remove the protections of the Endangered Species Act from the grizzly bears of the Yellowstone region, thereby paving the way for hunting seasons in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, hunters need to prepare themselves for a superstorm of popular outrage like nothing they have ever seen before.
The hunting community has not responded to these social changes gracefully, or intelligently. Jealously guarding their “traditions” and privileged relationships with state wildlife managers, they have tended to dismiss non-consumptive users in disrespectful terms that foreclose any possibility of compromise or reform. In the case of Josh Bowmar, as you have just witnessed, the vast majority of hunter comments on UA's Facebook pages have defended Bowmar, assuming that legality was a sufficient test for morality, unfazed by Alberta's commitment to follow other provinces in closing the spear-hunting loophole exploited by Bowmar and his guides. Instead of recognizing this as an opportunity to bolster their claim to respect the animals they “harvest,” to abandon practices that even Alberta (no hotbed of “liberalism”) described as archaic and unacceptable, and to reinforce a code of ethical hunting, they have reacted with a level of emotion that can only be described as tribal. In the long run, such obduracy does nothing to protect hunting as a tradition, but merely accelerates its demise.
In such a highly-charged atmosphere, conflicts over wildlife management in general, and hunting in particular, are intensifying and proliferating. Even if the hostility toward your brand currently evinced by the hunting community subsides, or can somehow be overcome by promotions, strategic partnerships, or pricing, you may wish to consider, as a businessman if not as a citizen, the extent to which your hitherto successful brand should associate itself with the hunting demographic.
Of course, hunters are only part of your public-relations problem.
From Connected Fitness™ to Connected Cruelty
From our point of view, UA's summary dismissal of Sarah Bowmar was a wholly unconvincing response to a horrific event that your company not only should have foreseen, but arguably encouraged.
Your company had ample opportunity to disassociate itself from the Bowmars long before the spearing video went viral. Josh Bowmar originally posted that video in June, the bear having been killed not long after it left its winter den, post-hibernation hunger overcoming its instinctive fear of humans and driving it back to the bait that Bowmar's guides had set out. This video was but the latest in a long series of similar celebrations of killing presented by the Bowmars. UA executives knew very well that the Bowmars engaged in gory self-promotion, yet consciously chose to sponsor Sarah Bowmar to further UA's commercial objectives, proudly featuring her violent interpretation of “sport” in UA's “Women of Will” campaign. The claim that Josh Bowmar was not sponsored by UA may be technically true, but flies in the face of the practical realities of their marriage and joint business ventures, and thereby insults the intelligence of the public. Your company's financial support helped the Bowmars to indulge in their lethal activities, and UA fully deserves to be tainted by their conduct.
UA's statement announcing Sarah Bowmar's termination expressed no concerns whatsoever for the suffering experienced by the bear. Spear-throwing was described as “reckless,” but only in terms of the possible risks presented to hunters. Ironically, the complaints of many hunters, their emotions preventing them from perceiving the hollowness and hypocrisy of UA's gesture to the “antis,” help explain why your company has failed so miserably in this regard. On the very same Facebook page that disposes of Sarah Bowmar, UA continues to feature pictures of bow hunters posing with the animals they have just killed. As hunters remind us, bow-hunting is qualitatively very similar to spear-hunting, inflicts similar wounds, and imposes agonizing deaths on its victims. Your website prominently displays female hunters, of highly implausible pulchritude and in figure-hugging camo, aiming drawn bows, intent on dispatching some unseen, hapless creature. And your Ridge Reaper TV episodes – some featuring Kip Fulks himself – massage the emotional hot buttons of hunters so brazenly that they rise to the level of a Rambo parody fit for The Daily Show on Comedy Central. While all of this no doubt makes perfect sense in the field of targeted marketing, it magnifies the ethical failure of your company many times over, concealing trails of blood behind sales reports and revenue projections. Such indifference to the suffering of animals matters not, of course, to the stock market – unless and until it assumes the form of a public-relations crisis with implications for growth prospects and dividends.
What, then, do animals mean to Under Armour, Incorporated? How do they fit into the characterization of hunting as a “sport”? Most assuredly, they are not players in a game, where every participant understands the rules, chooses to play, has roughly equal equipment, and has an equal chance to prevail, depending only on his skill. (As just one example of this “rigging of the game,” your Ridge Reaper apparel is sold on the basis that it will render the hunter “undetected,” which hunters do not find the least bit incompatible with the quaint notion of a “fair chase.”) Granted neither a choice nor a voice, are animals mere inanimate objects to be struck, in the manner that Jordan Spieth smashes a golf ball down a fairway, the best results coming when solid, square contact is made? Are they convincing props to be used in adverts aimed at hunters, conveying the message that hunts will be more successful if conducted in the right kind of gear? Or are they, perhaps, trophies, crafted not by silversmiths but by the hands of God, and awarded only to the manliest of men and the bravest of women?
In UA's elevation of hunters to athletes, how else does merchandising subordinate animal sentience in the service of revenue generation? When hunters don a UA HealthBox™ to monitor “how they feel” and enjoy the “comprehensive ecosystem of fitness products” known as Connected Fitness™, does the device record the elation of making a kill, or just the heart rate of the hunter during field-dressing and the number of steps taken to drag the corpse back to the pick-up? Surely there is a cross-promotion to be had there, targeting the micro-niche of tech-savvy hunters, who may only be as athletic as the Bowmars in their minds' eyes, but who still have dollars to spend. The device would not care about the context in which the data were recorded, and nor would its vendor, if critical eyes were not watching from the ridgeline of social media.
Branded by Blood
At issue now, therefore, is not the character of Josh Bowmar, but the character of your company, and whether its own history of muscular development can continue in the face of widespread disgust. As you prepare to introduce your merchandise into Kohl's department stores, you will meet a client base that is largely female, a demographic group that tends to be more sensitive to animal-welfare issues, and whose “passion for the outdoors” is not generally expressed by killing the animals who live there. Similarly, your plans to expand into the United Kingdom, where you already have a relationship with Tottenham Hotspur, will be marred by the work of the tabloid newspaper, The Mirror, which has done such an effective job in exposing the Bowmar affair. The British are a nation of animal lovers, and hunting is widely reviled (particularly among the socio-economic groups who tend to purchase “soccer” jerseys) as an anachronistic expression of upper-class dominance. To make progress in these markets, you are going to have to decide how to position yourself relative to competitors whose logos have not been splattered with blood.
For the sake of our wild animals and the people who value them as living beings with whom we share this earth, we hope you choose wisely.
OneProtest | Stop the Florida Bear Hunt