COLLEGE REPORT: TEMPEST IN A T-SHIRT
A St. Cloud State University off-campus bookstore tries to boost sales—and ends up precipitating a major censorship dust-up. Making herself available to cover the story is student Becky Kuschel.
A seemingly innocuous article of clothing caused a major uproar on the campus of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University. During the first week of fall classes, Campus Book & Supply gave customers a free T-shirt bearing a message that touted the establishment’s inventory of used texts at affordable prices. Rankling some students and women’s organizations were the three lines of text emblazoned on the front of the white cotton shirt: “I’M CHEAP/I’M USED/I’M AVAILABLE.”
Although the words were positioned directly above the image of a book, the meaning seemed to vary among beholders. “It’s talking about the person wearing it,” insisted Kira Nelson, a senior marketing major. “It’s disgusting!”
Jared Fossum, also a marketing major, said his reaction when he first saw the shirt was that the message was “not what they’re intending.”
Both Nelson and Fossum claimed they would never wear the bookstore’s shirt. Not sharing those sentiments was Derek Lossing, a graduate business student who also holds down a job as director of sales and marketing for a private company. “I would wear the shirt,” he said with a grin.
“It’s a T-shirt marketing a bookstore. There is only a problem with the shirt if you’re looking for a problem.” Lossing added that he did not feel the T-shirt would say anything about him personally were he to wear it, and he did not find it derogatory toward men or women. As Lossing pointed out, “The bookstore was giving them to everyone shopping there, not just a specific demographic.”
The Women’s Center, along with Women’s Action and similar groups, quickly reacted to the message on the shirt. “We did generate a petition and gathered signatures, which we will mail to Campus Book & Supply,” admitted Women’s Center Director Jane Olsen.
In the meantime she also expressed the center’s views in a letter to Campus Book & Supply: “‘I’m cheap, I’m used, I’m available’ sends the message that women and men are available for sex any time and with anyone. It’s demeaning to both women and men.”
Olsen, who doesn’t feel the Women’s Center petition infringes on First Amendment rights, stated, “Just as Campus Book & Supply had the right to produce and distribute the T-shirt, others who found the T-shirt offensive have the right to express their disagreement with the message on the shirt.”
Mark Zsoter, the regional manager for Matthews Book Company—the operator of Campus Book & Supply—had only heard positive reactions from students. He said he was unaware that the context of the shirt was taken by some to mean gender instead of books. The wording, Zsoter explained, was taken from another store that had used the message as a slogan for its books. Zsoter said the T-shirt is no longer available.
To help challenge sexist advertising, Olsen urged students to get involved in organizations like Women’s Action or Students for Sexual Consent. The Women’s Center, she said, is “talking with students [and] in classes about the harm coming from advertising and media messages such as this.”
“This shirt is a marketing tool being used by an off-campus business,” Lossing observed. “It has, from an outside perspective, been effective in marketing that particular bookstore. Of course, people are going to see a double meaning in the Tshirt. If they weren’t supposed to, Campus Book & Supply would have handed out shirts that said, ‘I’m highlighted, I have bent corners, and you can purchase me on Division Street!’ Would this be as effective a marketing tool as the current shirt? Probably not.”
Becky Kuschel is a mass communications major at St. Cloud State University. She also plays a mean violin.
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