Would You Print an Offensive Logo?
It's likely happened to some of you out there. A customer, maybe a long-time customer you have a good relationship with, comes to you with a big order. They want 1,000 T-shirts for a rally, and they're willing to pay for the highest-quality shirts with four-color process logos. Everything is going smoothly... until you see the customer's artwork.
Maybe it's something racist, or maybe it's something sexist. It could be an image that's offensive to a religious group, or just a phrase you are personally uncomfortable printing. What do you do?
Colleen recently pointed me to a 2001 story about this very topic. A customer, Jonah Peretti, utilized Nike's then-new Personal iD service, which allowed users to order sneakers with a customized message. The company declined to fulfill Peretti's order because it included a word the company deemed offensive: "sweatshop." The email conversation between the MIT student and the athletic wear company spread across the Internet and became a PR headache for Nike.
"Sweatshop" is hardly an offensive word to most people, but it's a bad word for Nike. The company's decision to not fulfill the order resulted in more bad publicity than if they had agreed to let Peretti slander the brand with its own product, but I wouldn't necessarily say Nike made the wrong call. The company stuck to its guns, and while that decision lead to a minor embarrassment, in the long run it maintained its standards.
Most of us are not Nike and do not need to worry about maintaining a global brand, but that doesn't mean distributors and suppliers can ignore the topic. If you fulfill an order that has an offensive message, you may actually be in a worse situation than Nike was, given how much faster and further information spreads online in 2013 versus 2001. If that objectionable T-shirt you sourced is photographed by some enterprising Instragrammer, it has a high chance of going viral in a way you won't like. After that, it won't be hard for some journalist will be able to track down who placed the order and who printed the product.
The implications go beyond individual judgment and opinion. Depending on what the imprint is, it could be considered hate speech, which could open up those responsible to an entire morass of legal woes. While most forms of speech in the U.S. are protected by the First Amendment, in Canada, hate speech is strongly regulated: Those found guilty of inciting hatred against an "identifiable group" are eligible for a maximum prison term of two to 14 years. Even those protected by freedom of the press in America are not protected from any bad press they could get if responsible.
So, what do you do? As a distributor or supplier, do you feel a sense of responsibility for the contents of customer imprints? Have you ever canceled an order you found offensive or knew would be offensive to others? Have you ever printed something you knew would upset people, and if so, what was the outcome? If a situation like this has ever happened to you or someone in the industry you know, let us know (anonymously if you'd prefer) in the comments below.
Kyle A. Richardson is the editorial director of Promo Marketing. He joined the company in 2006 brings more than a decade of publishing, marketing and media experience to the magazine. If you see him, buy him a drink.