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."
Decoration and "Accidents Happen"
While the example provided by Solid Gold Bomb is stark, it does illustrate an important point: If you're not closely attentive to your decorations, you could be putting your business at risk.
"We had an issue one time where we put a shirt in for a competition, and it won an award," said Steven Kanney, president and owner of Target Decorated Apparel, Naperville, Ill. "We had it on our website, and it happened to be from iStock, or one of these stock photo sites," he explained. Since iStock and other stock photo sites strictly limit and monitor the use of their photos, and Kanney was unaware of the photo's origin, putting the shirt up on Target Decorated Apparel's website ended up putting the company into a legally risky situation.
Issues of offensive content may be similarly veiled. "A client of ours had a bit of an edgy design," said Kanney. "We actually thought it was pretty funny. We were doing a 'T-shirt of the month' kind of thing, giving awards out to our clients for doing cool stuff. We blasted it out because it was the winner, and we got some people chomping at us saying, 'I can't believe you would support this, I can't believe you thought this was good,'" he said. "It had something to do with Uncle Sam or whatever, I can't even recall it now, but I was just like 'Man! We're looking at something that's kind of cool, and we're not reading between the lines,' and things like that."
Could It Happen To Your Screen Printer?
After reading the original story, some may have questions about what, if any, is Amazon's role in the promotional industry. Are your decorators as dependent on the platform as Solid Gold Bomb was?
Kanney doesn't think so, and explained the difference between Solid Gold Bomb and industry decorators. "I would say [these guys] are the direct-to-garment guys," he said, comparing them to an extremely small-scale version of Zazzle or CafePress. "You can literally go out and buy, for 30 or 40 grand, a direct-to-garment printer. You can have a website, you can have people send you anything they want to send you, and start putting everything out. These direct-to-garment printers, their business model is literally, an order comes in, you grab a shirt off the shelf, and you make one," he said. "This guy was doing 400 orders a day, that was people probably picking one or two designs, ordering a few shirts, then he went ahead and printed them." For comparison, B2B printers and decorators might get around 500 orders a month instead of a day, but each order would be for a few hundred or thousand shirts.
This difference leads B2B printers to value each order more, since there's more money at stake per order, rather than a direct-to-garment printer who depends more on printing as many different orders as possible (and is therefore more likely to take risks on offensive or otherwise questionable orders). Amazon and other mass-consumer e-commerce platforms are of little interest to B2B printers, since chasing a high volume of super-small orders doesn't really play to their strengths or fit their business models.
While Solid Gold Bomb may not have been in the promotional industry, the lessons from its closing are relevant nevertheless. Computerized automation can be a powerful tool for any business, and sometimes an incredibly effective equalizer between large and small companies in a given market, but it should be used and monitored with the utmost care. Apparel decoration is already an inherently risky business, since so much of it hinges on judging what is and isn't okay to print. Turning that judgment over to a computer, even partially, can drastically increase the risk of something going wrong. When it comes to morality, computers are a poor substitute for the human eye.