Parent Advocates Connected Via Social Media Do Not Dumb Consumers Make

Corporations are still playing catch up to the speed at which life happens online. Some are doing it well and have this social media thing down. They understand what “online brand identity” means. Others have no clue and think placating with “We thank concerned customers like you for bringing this to our attention” when something incredibly offensive happens will suffice. It does not.

Some companies make no effort to make a pro-active public statement about an issue until absolutely forced to following a social media shit storm. Some apologize, but in a way that leaves you responsible for the offense you took (“I’m sorry you were offended” is not an apology). Or worse, they completely ignore it and/or delete our voices on their social media sites.

Today’s consumers are different, and that doesn’t work anymore. We are different because we are all connected online, every minute, in every place. Corporations are not dealing with one voice here and one voice there calling into their customer service lines, they are dealing with thousands and thousands by the second. And this shouldn’t be a problem, if you know your brand identity and stick to it online. But when you forsake that to gain a few sales, you get trouble.

One of our Pigtail Pal parents did an excellent job of explaining how Sears got into this mess:

“This is not quite as simple as I’d like to think. There are two general categories of an online store hosting forum: The “Common Carrier” and the “Curated Content”.

A Common Carrier style provider doesn’t (definitionally *cannot*) discriminate between the content offered. It’s a ‘dumb pipe’ that carries anything, whether pure fresh water or toxic sludge. It’s blind to the content, even when it shoves its own stuff through its own ‘dumb pipe’.

This is not to say that there aren’t legal/moral requirements for common carrier style providers. YouTube, for instance, offers a forum for anyone to post a video. It prohibits some things (drug use, nudity, etc) and is legally required to honor DMCA takedown requests (for copyrighted material posted without permission). Many internet forums are completely wide open–they don’t discriminate or take a post down if it is pro-Nazi or some other horrible thing. The users try to self-police and shun/ostracize/whatever the offenders to keep the environment up to the self-imposed standard.

So… YouTube falls here. Amazon Marketplace falls here. Etsy falls here. A bunch of forums fall here. Pinterest falls here. eBay falls here.

A Curated Content style provider says, “I’m going to actively take a look at Every. Single. Thing. that gets posted/included on this.” That means I cannot open up my marketplace to 3rd parties without hiring a ton of labor to examine every new thing. That means that comments are moderated and approved before they post. It places a strong limit on the ability of a site to welcome new users or increase user base or facilitate free flow of speech.

It’s way more labor intensive, but also much more personal and, well, curated.

My personal blog falls under this category. Ikea’s website falls here. Most Tumblr’s fall here.

Sears is trying to get the best of both worlds. They want to open their sales platform up to everyone (as a ‘dumb pipe’) so that they can take a cut of every sale. Essentially, they’re leveraging their existing customer base as a way to justify a cut of 3rd party sales revenue. (“I’ll exchange my customers’ eyeballs for 5% of every sale you make” sort of thing.) But…they still want things to *appear* like they’re curated, in hopes of duping their existing customer base. (“All of the stuff offered at Sears.com’s e-retail site carries with it the notion that Sears has approved its presence” sort of thing, even if it isn’t true.) What’s really happening is that Sears approves a 3rd party marketer with a contract, and that 3rd party marketer can then carry whichever products it deems meets the rules of that contract.
It takes the notion of the ‘curated’ site and shoves the ‘toxic sludge’ of the other vendors down the pipes.

So who is to blame? Well, if Sears wants us to believe that they stand behind every product sold (aka that Sears.com is a “curated” site), then they have to take the FULL blame. (And they can pass along whatever penalties they want to their 3rd party retailer, it’s irrelevant to the customer-facing portion of the operation.)

If Sears wants us to believe that they are a ‘dumb pipe’, then they have to accept that their brand is about to lose a ton of its value. “Sears” no longer means “providing quality services, products and solutions that earn their trust and build lifetime relationships”. It means ‘we’ll sell anything to make a buck’. And that loses customers, which means they can’t make the eyeballs-for-a-cut-of-revenues exchange anymore.

Personally, I think Sears *ought* to be in the Curated Content category. It makes better sense for them as a brand, as a retail company, and as a future strategy. But it also means they’ll have to swallow the bitter pill of owning up to this idiotic product being placed in their store. And it means they’ll have to do a better job of, you know, CURATING the stuff they sell in their store. Which means more labor, which means higher costs for Sears, which means less profitability, which means less likelihood of keeping the open market in the first place. (Which is fine by me!)” – Pigtail Pals Parent, Josh S.

 

These quotes were taken from savvy Pigtail Pals Parent Adocates from our facebook page. When you are dealing with Pigtail Pals Parents, this is what you are getting:

“???????If your mission is to improve the lives of your customers “by providing quality services, products and solutions that earn their trust and build lifetime relationships” it is your responsibility to make sure that everything sold on your site reflects that. http://searsholdings.com/about/” – Julie K.

“I would hold you accountable to an extent. I would be understanding about someone else selling something offensive so long as you remove it and prohibit that seller from selling through your site as soon as you become aware of the offensive products. It is a reflection on you.” -Christina T.?

“?The host business is accountable. It ruins their good name if a bad product is sold through them. As such, they should have it in the contract and provide their employees time to screen other people’s products to make sure they fit with the company’s values. If Sears doesn’t want to be held responsible for such things happening again, they need to stop that practice and let vendors sell on their own or in a marketplace like eBay or Etsy where people set up their own online shop with the tools provided by the site. But even there, the site owners have the ability to shut down a vendor selling offensive products because they also want to preserve their good name.

“How about people stop trying to pass off offensive as cute? Then it won’t be an issue” -Meghan H.

“This is tricky, becuase Sears is a store, and I associate their website with their brick and mortar store. I feel differently about websites like Amazon and eBay. Sears is clearly making money off this venture and doing so despite customer’s feedback about what they expect from Sears. In this case, I hold Sears responsible. I also did some checking on this third party, and most of what they have is just ridiculous. They are selling shirts in Junior size Small that say things like “Hucci” and “Kiss Me, Spank Me, Do Me” and much worse. The fact that they aren’t selling those particular tops on Sears website tells me they knew there was a standard and they chose to push the envelope.” -Joanna McL

“Free speech ends when it promotes violence against others. That’s where the line is drawn.” -Ryan S.

“The nonsense is apparently endless. I am stunned. These slogans are in no way funny or clever, even tongue-in-cheek, on adult clothes. (I could possibly ignore the butt plug one if it were sold in an ‘adult’ store, but it is clearly not suitable for general retail.” -Joanna P.

“Where are the marketing people on these things? Is there nobody clever and socially savvy employed at these massive corporations? Somebody who can say, “Hey, y’all! Even if you choose to overlook the appalling and indefensible nature of the content, there is no sense doing this from a business perspective: we will have to pull all these damn shirts pronto.” -Michelle S.

Sears and Their Third Party Vendors Behaving Badly

As a parent and a business owner, I believe that when my name, whether it be my family name or my business name, is attached to something that is found offensive it is my responsibility to do two things: try to correct or amend the offense, and issue a sincere apology. It is simply the right thing to do.

I’m not sure why consumers give large businesses a free pass on that, but we seem to, time after time. I’m told they are just trying to make money. I’m told I don’t have to buy it. “Free speech” and “open market” are things I hear quite a bit, but I have yet to accept that. Specifically when these instances of “free speech” are actually instances of objectifying females or outright misogyny.

As Ryan S. said on our facebook page, “Free speech ends when it promotes violence against others. That’s where the line is drawn.”

Take, for instance, Sears (also owns Lands’ End) – our 126 year old American cornerstone, selling child-sized t-shirts on their online marketplace that read:

“Nice Girls Don’t Use Pepper Spray”

“Don’t Make Me Kick You In The Fallopian Tubes”

“Don’t Make Me Kick You in the Birth Canal”

I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in, because the condoning of rape culture and misogynistic violence against women and girls directed at their genitals sounds like we’re describing a third world country. We are, in fact, talking about Sears and their third party vendor, 99 VOLTS.  These shirts have since been pulled from Sears’ online marketplace. They are still for sale at 99 VOLTS. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

These shirts are offensive in adult sizes, but in children’s sizes it is outright appalling. Nice girls, bad girls, any girls have the right to protect their bodies from rape. Men and boys do not have the privilege to rape, specifically by shaming a girl into “taking it” at the risk of losing her patronizing “nice girl” status. The “Don’t Make Me Kick You” shirts, with the act of aggression specifically aimed at the female reproductive parts is hateful to the point of being misogynistic. We have a lot of that going around these days, but to have it offered in a Youth Small is just too much.  What does it say about our society when we openly teach our children to hate, for the bargain price of $15.99?

When this story broke, it somehow flew under my radar. Then I started getting emails from parents asking if I’d heard that Sears was selling a baby t-shirt that read “Hung Like Daddy”. This shirt that sexualizes little boys has also been pulled by Sears, but if you search “Hung Like Daddy” on sears.com you will find a cache of tongue-in-cheek horse cock Halloween costumes. You know, because Sears is all sorts of classy.

From the Zimbio post linked above, it is reported: “A Sears spokesperson responded to an AdAge query about these offensive T-Shirts with the following:  Thank you for bringing this to our attention. While products like this may appear on Sears.com marketplace through a third party seller, Sears does not sell them. We are removing these products from the site.” 

Well now hold on a minute, Sears. You are, in fact, the seller.  The items were not carried in your store, but I see the Sears logo at the top of the web page, and the BBC accreditation with your contact info at the bottom. I can even earn “Shop Your Way Points” from your store when I shop your woman-hating way.You process my payment. Your third party vendor holds the inventory and does the order fulfillment, but you are indeed the seller. See, just like this, when I go to sears.com to buy the “JC Penney Banned T-Shirt I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework So My Brother Does it For Me”, it looks just like this….

For reals, this is for sale at sears.com.

I’m not sure if you got the memo, but that didn’t go well for JC Penney.  And when JC Penney got busted for it on their online marketplace, they issued a rather acceptable apology. They didn’t pass the buck.

Your Public Relations department wasn’t polite enough to return my phone messages, despite the recording I heard from a woman who sounded like Phyllis Diller telling me you’d return my call within the hour. I sent two emails to the person your fully-automated Public Relations line told me to, but those went unanswered. For posterity’s sake I just sent off a third email, here’s what I asked:

I received a reply email from the Division VP of Public Relations this morning. Why am I left feeling like I am the one who has to police Sears’ website for them, and they’ll only stop selling garbage if they get caught. And why does it feel like I have to apologize when I’m offended? “Sorry you were offended” isn’t the same thing as saying “We deeply apologize our website was offensive to you, violence against women is offensive to us as a brand and as individuals.”

Sears has asked their third party vendor to remove the shirts, and I have confirmed this with that vendor. But this vendor DID NOT lose their approval to sell. When you pile up all of the items mentioned in the post, seems like Sears is doing a pretty crappy job of “policing their marketplace”. What I’d like to hear from Sears, much like we did from Amazon after they finally got the apology correct for selling a how-to-groom-and-rape guide for pedophiles, and much like we did from JC Penney after T-shirt Gate 2011, is a sincere apology. (Hint: Don’t take notes from Chap Stick) Something about Sears respects all of it’s customers, does not condone violence against women and children, and that they are reviewing the vetting process for their third party vendors because maintaining a family brand is important to the people who work for our all-American staple, Sears. They feel very badly this shirts caused distress to their customers and the general public, and moving forward will take appropriate steps to ensure a safe and responsible shopping experience.

Because, call me crazy, I think it would rather be a smart investment on the part of Sears, if they are going to go the third party route, to pay some out-of-work college kids living at home with their parents $9/hour to go through their massive online marketplace to make sure their brand isn’t tied to sexualizing, pedophilic, racist garbage like this:
 

Not to mention, that image looks like something from an Eastern European human traffiking website. Really, Sears? And contrary to Tom’s message, I can earn “Shop Your Way Points” on this and the Homework tee. I won’t be shopping Sears way anytime soon. Or, ever.

If you’d like to contact Sears about any of this troubling information, you can call the Sears National Customer Service Line at 1-800-549-4505to file a complaint. When I did, the woman I spoke with was completely aghast and thanked me for calling in. So be polite to whomever to speak with, because they are people too, and let them know why you want Sears to take some corporate responsibility over it’s marketplace. You could also take a crack at emailing Tom Aiello, asking for an apology that leans a tish more towards accepting some responsibility for the Marketplace they have created, with the Sears name at the top and bottom of every page. Tom’s email address is in the message above.

I might also encourage you to contact the small businesses in your area, or favorite online business, like Pigtail Pals, who operate with integrity and offer respectable apparel for your family. Tell the folks who are doing it right why you appreciate them. We work really hard at what we do, we don’t sell out to make a quick buck, and we put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into building our brands.

You might ask why I’m not doing a change.org petition. Because what happens is that generates a TON of media buzz for the ill-behaved retailer when news channels cherry pick the story off of my blog, and the story becomes an “Oh how could they!?” morning bit with a psychologist inserted for credibility, instead of a story on the company that is doing it right. I’m just tired of it all. Focus on who’s got it right, and parents would know there are much better, more responsible small businesses out there working really hard to bring great products to their families. When people know better, they can do better.

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So…..who ARE these third party vendors? Most of them are small businesses, just like Pigtail Pals. The company selling the pepper spray and birth canal tees is 99 VOLTS, located in Florida. I had a long conversation with their manager on Tuesday. It was interesting, to say the least. He did confirm for me that Sears emailed him and instructed him to remove the offensive tees described above, which he did. We then had a very interesting conversation.

**I’m going to apologize ahead of time for the language about to follow, but I think it is really important that you understand where this is all coming from.**

My phone call yesterday with 99 VOLTS manager Emery was, ahem, colorful. He was very polite and took about 30 minutes to answer every single one of my questions. I really appreciated that. 

I begin the convo by saying I want to talk to the guy responsible for the “Don’t Make Me Kick You In The Birth Canal” tee. I hear a chuckle on the other end of the phone. I say rather directly the reason for my call is that I don’t find the violence against women’s genitalia to be funny. Funny Haha or funny ironic. The guy clears his throat and asks how he can help me.

Emery, the manager at 99 VOLTS, confirms for me they are a third party vendor on the Sears marketplace and upload items in bulk. I ask of there are Terms and Conditions or a Code of Conduct for such an agreement, and he says they are. I question if those tees fall within those stipulations, he says he guesses not because Sears emailed him to remove those items.  I ask why they were produced in children’s sizes to begin with, and I get an answer about last time Emery checked, kids cannot buy online unless they are 18 years old, so if a parent buys one of those tees for a kid, they must think it is okay. I then delicately remind Emery that a lot of people who probably shouldn’t procreate, and that what role does 99 VOLTS play in supplying those families with misogynistic and potentially dangerous and desensitizing apparel. Emery says it is a free market, and they appeal to all different kinds of people. Indeed. By the by, 99 VOLTS also sells high brow tees like “Got Farts” and “Jesus is Coming….Hide the Sex Toys”.

So I tell Emery that I understand they have a niche, which seems to be the bar/beach/biker/rock band/frat boy niche. I tell him that I get they want to be edgy and sarcastic and irreverent. I’m fine with all of that. But I ask if violence against women and rape is funny to him. Because it isn’t funny to me, and to most of society. Emery says that 99 VOLTS prides themselves on being sassy. He says someone at 99 VOLTS came up with the t-shirt slogans, they thought it was funny and would sell so they turned it into a t-shirt. I ask Emery how many women are on his design team. He says it is just him and another guy, so zero. I should have asked Emery if he’d ever been raped, and if he giggled his way through it since it is so freaking hysterical to him. I didn’t do that, I played nice.

Next I ask Emery if they have plans for a “Don’t Make Me Kick You In the Dick” tee. No he says, that would be offensive. I ask why, and he says they can’t use vulgar words like dick, cock, or pussy. He says they could say anatomical words like penis or testes, but Sears would consider “dick” to be profane. Gasp! I ask him isn’t that just playing semantics, he doesn’t really answer that one. So I ask him if they are developing a “Don’t Make Me Kick You In the Testes” tee….and wouldn’t you know it, they are. He explains they couldn’t sell a shirt that says “Eat Shit”, but they apparently thought they could get away with the one about pepper spray that normalizes rape. I think we need to scrub up on our morals, 99 VOLTS.

Emery then tells me the “Don’t Make Me Kick You In the Birth Canal” and “Don’t Make Me Kick You In the Fallopian Tubes” is really a spin off the idea that when guys are whiny and annoying they get called pussies. So the tee is supposed to be like a warning telling guys to not act effeminate or they’ll get kicked in the pussies they don’t have. But they can’t put the word pussy on a shirt and sell it at Sears, so they went with birth canal. Clever.  I tell Emery that all of that back story is kind of lost when you see the tee on it’s own, and maybe they should rethink the phrase. He then tells me that the most popular tee style they sell that in is baby doll tee. Know what that means? WOMEN are buying it. Good. God.

So we chat a little more about violence against women. This conversation is fascinating to me because for three years I’ve railed against crap sold to kids, but never had the chance to talk to the person who developed it. They have all hidden, and I gotta say, I respect that 99 VOLTS stayed on the phone with me and talked. And even though Emery was certainly smart enough to get that I strongly disagreed with him, we had a really nice conversation. He seemed really open to talking about this. He tells me Sears didn’t have a problem or boot the shirts until people complained. He says Amazon doesn’t have a problem selling it. I remind him Amazon defended the selling of a book written for pedophiles on how to rape children, and maybe Amazon shouldn’t be our gold standard of online commerce.

Then he said some things that makes it so clear to me why stuff like this exists on the market — because people who think it up want to make money, and they don’t really care if they devalue females in order to do it, because they don’t even see it as devaluing females. They don’t seem to see any wrong in what they are doing. Emery said to me, “I do see your point about violence against women, but that is all kind of a gray area.”  I tell him I’m going to need to him expand on that. He says that all through human history, it was acceptable to beat your woman or even kill her if she gets out of line. We (99 VOLTS) do not condone violence against women, or against anyone, but it wasn’t until recently with the feminist movement that it became unacceptable to beat a woman.

Through gritted teeth I tell Emery it has always been wrong to beat or kill a woman, feminists just made sure it was also illegal. He then tells me they offer some nice choices for the ladies, like “Well behaved women rarely make history”. Meh.

But here’s the thing – I ask Emery if he and the other development guy would be willing to have a couple more conversations with me about what they are creating. He says sure. He gives me the number for Chuck, the guy who owns the joint and tells me to call him on Monday. I’m going to do that.

Here’s what I’d like you to do — write to 99 VOLT and ask them to stop making these misogynistic and hateful tees. Emery is one half of the development team, and he seemed open to reason. He’s actually a pretty clever guy and cracked me up a couple of times on the phone. I have an inkling that if 99 VOLTS were enlightened to do better, they just might.

Or not. And then we can use that idea tossed out on the facebook page and see if they’ll make the “Misogynists are Assholes” tee.

99 VOLTS
PO BOX 272
Oneco FL 34264

sales@99volts.com