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Free Press Brought to You By Warby Parker

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Warby Parker glasses resting on books Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

It’s 2017 and we can’t even agree that “body-slamming” another human is a bad thing to do. If you think it’s obvious that this type of violence is bad, then you must not be on Twitter, where people are praising Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.

In the process of Gianforte’s WWE routine, Jacobs’s glasses were broken (an all-too-obvious portend of where our society is headed??). A minor detail in a case that involves a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives, on election night, attacking a member of the press. That didn’t stop hip glasses brand Warby Parker from getting involved.

On the surface, this is a nice story about a brand getting involved and helping out someone who was innocently attacked, but it begs the question: What role should brands be playing in this space? Yes, Warby Parker will part with one of its frames, assuming Jacobs wants a pair, but what it gets back in free press for jumping on a story like this dwarfs that. (We have reached out to the brand about its intentions.)

The tweet offering Jacobs a pair of glasses currently has 57 retweets and 573 likes; compare that to the last couple sent out by Warby Parker: zero retweets, seven likes; zero retweets, eight likes; and an over-performer with 28 retweets, 73 likes (This was the most-engaged-with tweet from WP’s account dating back to March 23rd).

And jumping on a story with viral potential is nothing new: We’ve seen Reebok try to make leaps it was never going to clear with its own RompHim and a sweaty shirt in response to Nordstrom’s muddy jeans. There’s something ickier about capitalizing off of an assault, though — especially one that has been orchestrated by a chorus of people trying to make the press the enemy.

It gets really murky when every action is now a political one. Warby Parker’s was politicized from the beginning. The idea was first floated by reporter Samantha Reyes, who suggested Warby Parker donate the glasses “in the name of democracy.” The tweet gained even more visibility when former presidential candidate Evan McMullin quote-retweeted it.

And it wasn’t a neutral action to those reading the tweet, either. One responder chafed at the gesture and asked if Pampers will be providing “a new diaper as well?” while many others offered their patronage to Warby Parker for standing behind the free press. And while brands like Under Armour and New Balance have gotten caught up in politics, that was based on how the companies stood to gain from change in policy.

It’s not even Warby Parker’s fault. It was brought into this by another reporter — what would the conversation even look like if the brand hadn’t engaged? New Balance sneakers were lit on fire after the brand came out in support of Trump, but Warby Parker doing this over a public channel is shades of Macklemore posting his text to Kendrick Lamar after the former felt he robbed the latter at the Grammys.

There’s hardly any place to go, though, for a brand caught up in the middle of a controversy. See: Tic Tac after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape was exposed. Would this feel better if Warby Parker had a history of supporting free press? Does it get a boost because it has a history of supporting other causes, like transgender rights, and the fact that it donates a pair of glasses for every one bought? Maybe, yes, I don’t know.

Whereas once a brand could easily chill in the neutral zone, it’ll be interesting to see “in the age of Trump” where brands find opportunities to join in on political conversations, and the gambles they take by pissing off one base while pleasing another. To me, it feels like a strange way to humanize a thing that has an explicit purpose to sell you something in exchange for money. What’s particularly uncomfortable about this situation is that a brand is potentially profiting off an extremely fucked-up situation. When a politician beats up a reporter, there are no winners, except the brands, apparently.