Halloween has turned into big business.  This year, Americans are estimated to spend over seven $7 Billion on Halloween costumes.  What is even more interesting is that adults will spend more money on their costumes than the costumes they buy for their children.  The holiday has turned into a big party for adults and an excuse to get dressed up and have a good time.
But when does a good time go bad? In an era when everything must be politically correct, costumes can become a sticking point for activists as they are deemed too offensive and pulled from the shelves. This begs the question: what responsibility does a business have to monitor the political correctness of the products they sell?

In the last 30 days, UK retailers Tesco and Asda (European arm of Walmart) elected to remove two costumes from their physical stores as well as their websites.

Psycho-Ward-horz

Psycho-Ward-horz

The two costumes, which were titled ‘Psycho Ward’ and ‘Mental Patient,’ sparked a bit of a social media controversy in Britain, which resulted in the companies pulling the costumes from their shelves.

Paul Jenkins, the CEO of Rethink Mental Illness said the following regarding the ‘Mental Patient’ costume.

“This costume is breathtakingly insensitive, and it’s shocking that Asda ever felt it was an appropriate product to sell.  There is already so much stigma surrounding mental illness, and ‘joke’ products like this only serve to make things worse.”

Asda knew that pulling the costume off the rack wasn’t going to be enough, so they went to Twitter to issue the following statement:

“We’d like to offer our sincere apologies for the offense caused and will be making a sizeable donation to (mental illness charity) @MindCharity.  We’re really sorry for any offense this has caused and we are removing this product from sale.”

The offense is understandable, but the response to these costumes seems a bit overblown. Pressuring companies to remove these costumes from their shelves is, in our opinion, an over reaction.  None of these items are illegal, and frankly, the depiction of mental illness has long been a staple of Halloween and horror.

Some of the best horror films contain characters that suffer from mental illness and may even be set in mental institutions. Famous characters such as Dracula, Mike Myers, Freddy Krueger, and even Hannibal Lecter were all referenced in their films as mental patients.

Customers buying a Halloween costume like the ones removed by Tesco and Asda aren’t mercilessly mocking mental illness. Rather, they are mirroring the horror they’ve enjoyed in scary movies and books. Real life mental illness, though a problem for millions of people, is not the focus in these Halloween characters. Works of fiction and imagination are.

Was the backlash over these costumes worth it? Hardly. Tesco and Asda have suffered unnecessarily for it. While reputation management is essential to businesses and individuals alike, it shouldn’t be common practice to immediately back down if something strikes the wrong chord with a small amount of people.  Its a shame that Tesco and Asda felt that they needed to remove these costumes, as consumers should be able to make their own decisions about what they feel is appropriate to spend their money on this Halloween.