Moosejaw Mountaineering, a Michigan institution known for its outdoor recreation apparel and gear, prides itself on its unpredictable and “goofy” promotions. Past catalog themes include food fights and bad family photos.

Some say its most recent catalog, however, may have gone too far.

The company has received a flood of negative feedback for its jail-themed Winter 2009 promotional campaign that appears to have offended customers and community members alike.

The winter catalog features models in Moosejaw merchandise posing behind bars and in other jail settings, including a page titled “Letters to the Warden” with letters from invented prisoners.

While the catalogs will be available starting today, much of the recent objection stems from an e-mail sent earlier this month to Moosejaw’s subscriber list.

Like the catalog images, the e-mail promotion features a model behind bars in a Moosejaw T-shirt, but also advertises a “free Moosejaw Jail Activity Book” that includes “design your own prison tattoos” and a “don’t get shanked in the shower fun maze.”

University alum Emily Harris wrote in a Nov. 9 post on the Moosejaw Facebook fan page that she found the campaign “extremely offensive.” Since that post, the fan page has become a soapbox for critics and defenders of the campaign alike — though the defenders are far outnumbered.

In an e-mail interview, Moosejaw Creative Director Gary Wohlfeill said the catalog was not intended to offend anyone.

“Like all of our campaigns, our goal with Jail was to show our customers something unexpected and wacky and not take ourselves too seriously,” he wrote. “The idea behind this particular campaign was to parody the glamorization of crime and prison by pushing it to its completely illogical conclusion.”

Wacky or not, many have expressed outrage at what they perceive as an insensitive and uneducated treatment of prison and incarceration.

“Prison and jail is not a funny thing,” said Penny Ryder, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s criminal justice program.

Ryder said she contacted Wohlfeill via e-mail to express her disdain after the promotion was forwarded to her. In his response, Wohlfeill wrote that offending people was “certainly not our intent, nor would we want to capitalize on the suffering of another human being.”

Ryder responded, suggesting to Wohlfeill that rather than portray prison in a satirical light, Moosejaw should consider hiring “released citizens” — formerly incarcerated individuals — to staff its warehouses. Wohlfeill replied that he would “see what opportunities we may have to offer.”

“One of the main issues of people going back to prison is because they don’t get work,” Ryder said in her interview with the Daily.

University alum Amit Weitzer, who works as a consultant and organizer for the Michigan Campaign for Justice, wrote in an e-mail interview that while the ad campaign would undoubtedly be offensive anywhere, it is particularly so in a state like Michigan where “there are nearly 50,000 people incarcerated.”

A 2008 Department of Corrections report listed the number of prisoners in the state at 48,686.

Both Weitzer and Mary Heinen, coordinator of community and youth programs with the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project, said that as a Michigan-based company — its headquarters are in Madison Heights — Moosejaw should be more in tune with the region’s concerns.

Heinen said she was particularly offended by the portrayal of female prisoners in the promotional materials, especially in light of a class action lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections that resulted in an estimated $50 million payout last summer to 18 women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by prison guards.

She said that in the photograph from the e-mail advertisement, a young, attractive woman wearing a tight T-shirt and hanging on to the bars of a cell had a “come in and get me” kind of expression.

“It has a very sexualized vision,” she said. “The ad perpetuates the stereotype of the sexualization of women prisoners as something that they want, something they desire, when in fact it’s sexual assault.”

University students involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project have made their opposition to the campaign known by posting on Moosejaw’s Facebook page, sending e-mails, making phone calls to the stores and forwarding a petition in the form of a letter to Harvey Kanter, president and CEO of Moosejaw.

Harris said she became involved with PCAP in 2002 and has remained actively involved, despite living in California. It was this continued enthusiasm that led her to “mobilize as many people as (she) could to get in touch with Moosejaw to clarify just how problematic the ad is.”

Harris’s main issue with the campaign was the company’s attempt to capitalize on human suffering to sell a product.

However, she noted that Moosejaw has been extremely responsive to all of the e-mails and comments she has sent. Wohlfeill said the company has “responded to every person who has e-mailed and have published responses on Facebook.”

Moosejaw plans to move ahead with the Jail campaign. Wohlfeill said that while the company changed certain elements of the campaign and removed some shop signage after the feedback started coming in, they have no plans to remove the ads or catalogs.

But for Weitzer, that might not be enough. She wrote that while she has shopped at Moosejaw in the past, she refuses to do so again until the campaign has been recalled and a formal apology has been issued.

“I’ll be happy to continue supporting a community company when it ends an advertisement campaign that is destructive to our community,” she said.

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