“This teacher talked about ethics. You’ll never believe what happened next.”

“This is a new generation,” my colleague told me, after I recounted a recent class scenario to her, because I was so surprised about the opinions and attitudes which emerged during a class discussion on a popular fashion brand.

Is this generation gap really true? We are only one generation or about 12 years apart, but the gap seems quite prominent. I would be generation X, whilst my students are Y, some young ones even Millenials. However, just like in this picture, it seems that the outlook on life can be as opposing as black and white.


Image source here.

The said fashion brand which we looked at in class is large American-based clothing retailer who has often generated negative press. This is because the clothes were intentionally limited in size, occasionally featured racist T-shirt prints and were marketed to teens in an obviously sexualized manner (through advertising, TV commercials and half-clothed sales assistants).


Image source and news article here.

Furthermore, the long-standing CEO who suddenly left at the end of last year explicitly said that he was only interested in marketing to cool kids. So for the background information, the students looked at the brand’s visual marketing material, read the negative press articles and watched the marketing expert Jonathan Gabay talk about a recent issue where an applicant was denied a job due to wearing a headscarf to the interview.

Jonathan Gabay on BBC World News speaking on Hijab hiring scandal

Because this particular class deals with fashion advertising, I also engage the students in a discussion about ethics of advertising and marketing. My goal was not to blame the brand, but to look at its negative media coverage and think about possible new rebranding strategies, now that the visionary CEO had left. (At the end of the class, the students were given a project where they’d be inventing a new and more ethical advertising strategy for this brand.) My hope, as a teacher, was to inspire a constructive discussion and new ideas.

But here is where is turned strange. As one of those recently popular Facebook posts would say: “This teacher talked about ethics. You’ll never believe what happened next.”

urlraising hands

Image source here.

My usually timid students raised their hands and informed me that this brand’s attitude was absolutely fine with them. Joking about certain ethnicities and races is fine, too, said one student of a mixed-race ethnic background. Selling clothes in a sexual context is what young people want, said another. And discrimination? Well if you wear a head-scarf to a job interview and then don’t get the job, it’s your own fault, they said. If you don’t like the brand’s marketing you can always choose to shop (or work) somewhere else. However, the students were sure that the brand was popular for a reason, so they must have been doing something right. Or else, why would dozens of teenagers be lining the streets during a shop opening?


Image source and article here.

When I tried to explain that there are other people on this planet (one classroom of youths in southern Germany is not representative of all global opinions) who felt differently about the specific incidents, the generation gap opened gaping wide. My plea for ethical awareness and political correctness, respect for other ethnicities or religions was met with more raised arms, all ready to contradict me. Finally, a student summarized: “It’s great that you brought up this case study, because now you know that we think differently!”

So here are my questions to you, who teach, and to myself, because I have not answered them properly yet:

– How do you deal with contradicting or controversial opinions in class?

– What was your experience with the generation gap and the shift of ethical values?

– How do you stay true to your beliefs and remain a positive role model in the position as a teacher, when students are clearly not accepting your guidance?

I would love to hear your views on this, as I am still trying to figure out the answers myself. One thing I did realize however: You can never tell in advance how a lecture will go and how students will react.


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  • Christian May 22, 2015 09.39 am

    I think that the teenagers in the late nineties/early 2000s would have been more criticizing. Maybe because consumer protection (and awareness of industries in general) was a hot topic then.
    Or the fashion companies accepted regular competition and didn’t stress separation from others. Also, positive links like sports fashion – sports -health did work quite well.

    With contradicting opinions I would try to find a common ground, or if this is impossible, dig deeper to find the reasoning of those opinions.

    If the students project their view of a separating individualism/elitism to a company, and think it’s OK because they would do the same, there’s a mistake.

  • Olga May 25, 2015 04.03 pm

    Thank you for your comment, Christian. I wonder what will happen, if dig deeper to find the reason for these opinions. It might be bad general education, lack of ethical values or ignorance. In class I got the feeling that it was simply the power of the brand today. The brand is so strong that the young consumers want to believe in it and protect it – even if it is doing something very wrong.


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