Rozanne Polansky is angry about recent marketing decisions by Sears, Walmart and Amazon. She thinks “morally offensive merchandise” should be removed from websites that cater to “regular” customers like her.
So does another reader, Eileen Young, who told us: “I will be boycotting Sears and will be telling all of my friends, family, and community to do the same. I will only stop my activities when that hateful and terror-supporting line of products is pulled and a public apology is issued.”
They’re referring to these companies’ respective decisions to sell T-shirts with “Free Palestine” and “End Israeli Occupation” slogans on their websites — some of which carry messages and symbols that appear to support terrorism and hatred of Israel. These shirts were manufactured by a German clothing company called Spread Shirt.
After a public outcry, which included calls for boycotts of these companies, Sears has stopped selling them — at least on its website. They don’t appear on Walmart’s website anymore, either. But they are still available on Amazon.com — along with other Nazi memorabilia and materials that are anti-LGBTQ or racist. CafePress is selling these shirts too.
Do companies have a moral obligation to refrain from selling offensive items? And does it pay to offend your customer base?
I asked these questions in my first column on this site, in which I discussed two controversial marketing decisions by Starbucks and Bloomingdale’s. One month later, I followed up with a story inspired by a controversial Coca-Cola ad and the decision of several companies to dissociate from then-candidate Donald Trump by discontinuing sales of Trump-branded items.
Comments by readers of both columns leaned toward the view that companies had no obligation to produce “politically correct” products or services. They could market and sell anything they wished, and their customers’ decision to buy them — or not — was a “personal choice.” If a consumer was offended by anything for sale, the commenters suggested, they could vote with their wallets and not purchase them. And anyone offended by an ad could block or disregard the ad.
But neither of those columns dealt with terrorism. On the same day the first column was published, terrorists carried out a series of coordinated attacks in and around Paris, killing 130 people and injuring another 368. That was followed by attacks in Brussels, Germany, Manchester and London, among various other locales around the world.
Some of the “Free Palestine” merchandise that was available at Sears and Walmart and is still offered by Amazon and CafePress portrays closed fists and other messages suggestive of support for violent acts. Obviously those items are offensive to citizens and supporters of Israel, and they are open to interpretation as anti-Semitic as well.
It’s been asked: Why are public companies even selling these items?
The answer is: for profit. The companies wanted to increase their bottom lines, and their personnel in charge of marketing either supported the views expressed, were indifferent or didn’t realize that the views were sufficiently controversial as to affront others to the point that the companies’ bottom lines could be significantly affected by offering this merchandise.
Sears was quick to dissociate itself from these goods by indicating that it allows third parties like Spread Shirt to offer their merchandise on its website. But it speedily removed the offending items from its website at the behest of members of the public who threatened that they would not buy from Sears again. It may also reconsider whether it wants to do business with companies like Spread Shirt, which in turn may revisit its decision to manufacture and sell these goods.
Voting with your wallet is the best way to persuade public companies not to sell offensive goods, because there are no legal prohibitions against selling them. You can take your business to other companies, block ads, and write to the executives of these companies to express disapproval of these marketing decisions.
Companies are most likely not to sell goods and services when there is no market for them. Dropping sales volumes will hopefully convince sellers of these goods to stop carrying them.