Industry Reactions to Offensive T-shirt That Shut Down Screen Printer
Late last month, CNN reported that screen printer Solid Gold Bomb was forced to close down its business shortly after designing a T-shirt that read "Keep Calm and Rape a Lot," a variation on the British World War II-era phrase "Keep Calm and Carry On" that has recently become a popular Internet meme. Complaints about the offensive tee caused the printer to be de-listed from Amazon.com, the venue where Sold Gold Bomb did most of its business. Once de-listed, the flow of orders to the company dropped off dramatically, effectively ending its business. Company founder Michael Fowler claimed the offensive design was the result of an automated computer program that created millions of designs for the company (such as pun phrases like "I mustache you a question" and various Internet memes), and was not the result of human action. The computer program was fundamental to Solid Gold Bomb's success: The 10 million or so designs it was able to generate allowed the company to place highly on Amazon searches, earning it considerable business.
Though not directly related to the promotional products industry (Solid Gold Bomb was a small direct-to-consumer company), the story raises some relevant questions: Does the promotional industry face similar risks from automated order-taking software? How much should you be evaluating your customers' artwork and decorations for content? And what role, if any, does Amazon.com play for decorators in the promotional industry?
Automation and Quality Control
The first question most people ask about this story is, "How does something like this even happen?" The answer? Poorly monitored automation software.
Solid Gold Bomb's failure to monitor its logo-generation software is what allowed the offensive shirt to be designed and posted to Amazon, and ultimately what destroyed its business. And like it or not, automated decoration is only going to become more prevalent in the promotional industry. The same software that Solid Gold Bomb was using may not be adopted, but something similar—where users could write and place their own text on items via your e-store, for example—has the potential to become commonplace. For that reason, every distributor should be thinking about the risks and consequences of computer-based automated decoration.
Dale Denham, MAS+, CIO for Lewiston, Maine-based Geiger, gave his thoughts on Solid Gold Bomb's error. "I'm sad for the employees who lost their job but otherwise am satisfied with the business shutting down," he said. "While I appreciate the entrepreneurial challenge of monitoring all those statements and sympathize with the fact that technology can do unexpected things, the phrases are completely inexcusable. A very minor amount of quality control could have prevented the error without significantly affecting the business."
"The technology he was using I believe is similar to trending topics-type software (think Twitter) where it grabs trending phrases and mashes them up with phrases like 'Keep Calm,'" he explained. "It's possible to control this type of software by adding in keywords that are unacceptable. So he could have had a list of inappropriate words to ensure no phrase would use them."
"I'm sure they went through and got rid of all the four-letter words that most people think of, but they didn't start thinking about other words, like rape," added Seth Weiner, MAS, president of Sonic Promos, Gaithersburg, Md. "I think that really calls into question [the company's] judgment on their part, that they had not considered the potential ramifications."
Mary Grimm, promotional products sales for GroupeSTAHL of St. Clair Shores, Mich., parent company of Stahls' ID Direct, agreed. "It is a tough lesson, but you have to QC every print design," she said. "Even sites like Zazzle, CafePress and CustomInk check each design. At Stahls' we custom print or cut all designs," she said. "Some for our customers to print with their own presses, some we decorate for them. You have to maintain a standard."