Around the Nation
3:08 pm
Thu April 10, 2014

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard

Originally published on Thu April 10, 2014 7:12 pm

The phrase Boston Strong emerged almost immediately after last year's marathon bombings as an unofficial motto of a city responding to tragedy. But now some are wondering whether the slogan is being overused.

The words are everywhere: Boston Strong is plastered on cars, cut into the grass at Fenway, tattooed on arms, bedazzled on sweatshirts and printed on T-shirts (and everything else).

"We have Boston Strong bracelets, we have car magnets, little money pouches, we have mints," says Catherine Thomas, manager of a souvenir shop in Quincy Market. Boston Strong continues to sell strong, she says.

"I think it's not a shirt, it's an attitude that people have: You are Boston strong," Thomas says.

The first Boston Strong T-shirts were designed just about two hours after the bombing last April 15 and were sold that very day. Emerson College students Nick Reynolds and Chris Dobens say they figured their shirt was so good they might even sell 100.

"In our first week, we actually sold 37,000," Reynolds says.

Now they're up to 66,000, and with 100 percent of their profits going to the One Fund — the main marathon charity — their total donation is now more than $1 million. Dobens calls it a movement. He says the message Boston Strong really resonates with people who, at least for a moment, felt anything but.

"It's a community in itself when people wear those shirts and they show that they have support for Boston Strong," Dobens says.

Getting the shirt, he says, is as important to people as giving the donation.

"It has this idea of like, I have proof that I helped. I can show people that I really, really care about the people that I'm helping," Dobens says.

But it's that "showy" part that makes some people squirm at the whole Boston Strong phenomenon.

Psychologist and author Joseph Burgo says he understands the underlying feelings of solidarity and defiance, but he can't help but cringe at people feeling that their every sentiment has to be tweeted or posted or — literally — worn on their sleeves.

"I mean, why wear anything? I think there's a kind of a feeling that unless you share your experience with other people it isn't entirely real to you unless you announce it to other people," Burgo says. "It's just part of this narcissistic culture of ours where everything is about self-display."

It's almost as if people are using the Boston Strong brand to brand themselves, which raises a whole other concern that Boston Strong is not actually a brand and isn't trademarked — so anyone can sell it, regardless of whether any money goes to charity.

For example, at another souvenir shop in Boston, an array of Boston Strong T-shirts and other mementos — hats and puzzles and coffee mugs — is piled up on a display in the center of the store. But it's unclear to tourists shopping there which products send money to the One Fund.

Two young women ask a store manager and learn that no proceeds get donated from the blue and gray shirts, but a portion is donated from the blue and yellow ones. But the manager is not sure how much.

It's also unclear at a nearby outside pushcart where Dennis Callahan sells similar shirts. When asked if he will earmark any proceeds for charity as he did last year, he says he's going to "re-evaluate and see how it goes."

It may not be intentional, but customers are being misled, says Gayle Sulik, a sociologist at the University of Albany, SUNY, who studies pink ribbon marketing for cancer. And even if some money is donated, Sulik says, cause marketing often leaves charities with less, not more.

"I've heard the term 'slacktivism' used to kinda describe this idea that symbolic support is actual support: I bought that T-shirt so I really did contribute," she says. "But if we stop there — and we tend to stop there — then that's where we're feeling short."

Some have called for official labels to clarify exactly what, if anything, is being donated — kind of like nutrition labels on food. But Dobens, one of the original Boston Strong T-shirt-makers, says that won't happen until consumers demand it.

For now, Boston Strong remains a big seller and the slogan still somewhat sacrosanct in the city. When one local reporter dared tweet that he was sick of it, he was pilloried.

Reynolds, the other original shirt-maker, says there will come a time to retire the slogan.

"I think some would say that we've already reached that moment," he says. "I think it's sort of taken on an 'I Heart New York' sort of touristy 'I went to Boston this weekend' sort of thing." But that doesn't mean Reynolds is ready to quit selling his Boston Stong T-shirts. As long as they can keep making money to donate to the One Fund, he says, it's worth it to keep selling. In fact, they've just come out with a new design to mark one year since the tragedy.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's become a kind of rallying cry: Boston Strong. Almost immediately after the marathon bombings, the phrase emerged as an unofficial motto of a city responding to tragedy. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, a year later there are questions about whether the slogan's overused, and where profits from certain products with that slogan go.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The words seem to be everywhere: Boston Strong is plastered on cars, cut into the grass at Fenway, tattooed on arms, bedazzled on sweatshirts and, of course, printed on T-shirts and everything else.

CATHERINE THOMAS: We have Boston Strong bracelets, we have car magnets, little money pouches; we have mints.

SMITH: Mints?

THOMAS: Mints, yeah. Right there.

SMITH: Catherine Thomas, manager of a souvenir shop in Quincy Market, says Boston Strong continues to sell strong.

THOMAS: I think it's not just a shirt; it's like, an attitude that people have. Like, you are Boston strong.

SMITH: The first Boston Strong T-shirts were designed just about two hours after the bombing and were sold that very day.

NICK REYNOLDS: Chris turned to me, and he was like, hey, dude, how about T-shirts for this?

SMITH: Emerson College students Nick Reynolds and Chris Dobens say they figured their Boston Strong T-shirt idea was so good, they might even sell a hundred.

REYNOLDS: And in our first week, we ended up - we had actually sold 37,000.

SMITH: Now, they're close to 66,000. And with 100 percent of their profits going to the One Fund, the main marathon charity, their total donation is over a million dollars. Dobens calls it a movement. He says the message "Boston Strong" really resonates with people who - at least, for a moment - felt anything but.

CHRIS DOBENS: It's a community in itself when people wear those shirts and they show that they have support for Boston Strong.

SMITH: Dobens says getting the shirt is as important to people as giving the donation.

DOBENS: It has this idea of, like, I have proof now that I helped. I can show people that I really, really care about the people that I'm helping.

JOSEPH BURGO: It's hard not to get cynical about this stuff.

SMITH: Psychologist and author Joseph Burgo says he understands the underlying feelings of solidarity and defiance. But he can't help but cringe at people feeling that their every sentiment has to be tweeted or posted or literally, worn on their sleeve.

BURGO: I mean, why wear anything? You know, I think that there's a kind of a feeling that unless you share your experience with other people - like, it isn't entirely real to you unless you announce it to other people. It's just part of this narcissistic culture of ours, where everything is about self-display.

SMITH: It's almost as if people are using the Boston Strong brand to brand themselves, which raises a whole other concern; that Boston Strong is not actually a brand, and isn't trademarked. So anyone can sell it whether or not any money goes to charity

EMILY WEISSIK: Does it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't know. It doesn't say anything. I'm not really sure.

SMITH: At another souvenir shop in Boston, Emily Weissik and a friend poke through a large display of Boston Strong T-shirts.

WEISSIK: You know, you figure that they're all in same place, so you'd automatically assume that.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How's it going guys?

WEISSIK: Do these go to foundation - or like...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, yeah.

WEISSIK: Everything does?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No. No. Not that.

SMITH: Turns out it's a no for the blue and gray shirts, and a yes for the blue and yellow ones, though the manager doesn't know how much gets donated. Nor is it clear outside at a pushcart, where Dennis Callahan is selling similar Boston Strong T-shirts.

Do the proceeds go to charity?

DENNIS CALLAHAN: Yes, yes, they did. They did last year.

SMITH: They used to.

CALLAHAN: They did last year.

SMITH: But now?

CALLAHAN: We're going to re-evaluate and see how it goes.

SMITH: It may not be intentional, but customers are being misled, says Gayle Sulik, a sociologist at SUNY-Albany who studies pink-ribbon marketing for cancer. And even if some money is donated, Sulik says, cause marketing usually leaves charities with less, not more.

GAYLE SULIK: I've heard the term slacktivism used to kind of describe this idea that symbolic support is actual support: I bought that T-shirt, so I really did contribute. But if we stop there - and we tend to stop there - then that's where we're falling short.

SMITH: Some have called for official labels to clarify exactly what, if anything, is being donated, kind of like nutrition labels on food. But for now, the pressure on vendors comes primarily from consumers.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, they have pins!

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: They do.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh, my God, I like this one. I think I'm going to get it.

SMITH: Today, Boston Strong remains a big seller, and the slogan's still somewhat sacrosanct in this city. When one local reporter dared tweet that he was sick of it, he was pilloried. But Nick Reynolds, one of the original Boston Strong T-shirt makers, say there will come a time to retire the slogan.

REYNOLDS: I think some would say that we've already reached that moment. I think it's sort of taken on an "I Heart New York" sort of touristy, you know, I-went-to-Boston-this-weekend sort of thing.

SMITH: As long as they can keep donating their profits to the One Fund, Reynolds and Dobens say they'll keep selling. And they've just come out with a new design to mark the one year since the tragedy.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There's more coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.