Dorothy Crenshaw January 12, 2011 | 03:15:08

When Bad PR Is Good For Business

Boycotts are powerful, but they can also be PR magnets, drawing attention where none is deserved.

That seems to be the case with the attempts to pressure Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, to drop one of its sellers. Etsy is known not only for the business opportunities it provides to artist-entrepreneurs, but for its strong community and a culture that celebrates one-of-a-kind craftsmanship and creative expression.

But an Etsy boycott started to gather steam late last year over a specific member of that lovely, artsy community, a company called Not the typical Etsy craft-preneur, is it? This seller features hand-drawn greeting cards that mock such serious and sensitive conditions as rape, Down syndrome, cancer, and AIDS.

It’s honestly hard to imagine anyone having a use for the cards, and I don’t blame the mommy bloggers, advocates, artists and others who’ve expressed outrage over the merchandise. They’re right to be repelled by the messages.

And it baffles me that Etsy has been unresponsive to the complaints, even deleting all Facebook posts about the issue, no matter how respectful. The vendor’s very presence, and Etsy’s head-in-the-sand handling of the complaints, seem utterly antithetical to its culture and community standards. Check out Shel Holtz’s post for an analysis of the non-response. It’s also been a PR black eye. The buzz trickled up to the major media, resulting in a CNN report by an admittedly over-the-top Jane Velez Mitchell.

But what bothers me more is that the furor over the obnoxious cards has been good for business, or so it seems. Before October, when anger over the cards’ content began to build, the seller reported sales of exactly zero. Today, it’s showing 89 cards sold, most over the past couple of weeks. Now, I know 89 cards isn’t much, but the whole controversy reminds me of the pedophile book uproar, which turned a disgusting, self-published “guide” for child molesters to best-seller status among e-books. Ugh.

The Amazon situation, at least, was important as a precedent, because public pressure forced it to take responsibility for its merchandise. The learning there was that a private company, unlike the government, can choose its own vendors and enforce its own Terms of Service. That’s not censorship, it’s just good business. And, the protest worked. It took Amazon a single day to reverse its position and drop the book in question. But I still have trouble with the fact that the PR hoopla put money in a pervert’s pocket.

It’s easy to jump online to organize a movement in the heat of the moment. It feels good to vent online, or call the media, but I think we’ve become too quick to marshall our social and economic clout (and Klout.) There are times when a movement or boycott is misplaced, and I think this is one of them. Here’s why: Etsy’s situation is different from Amazon’s; the cards are tasteless, but they don’t condone or promote an illegal act. Second, Etsy isn’t a retailer, it’s a marketplace; its storefronts are separate businesses. Finally, a truly successful boycott would just hurt other Etsy sellers, while giving the card vendor buckets of publicity.

Maybe it’s boycott fatigue, but I’ve become a proponent of what I’m calling the “ignore-cott.” Here’s what I wish concerned citizens and influencers would do when confronted with an obnoxious or tasteless product. Don’t call a press conference, put up a Facebook page, or tweet to thousands of followers. Instead, express your opinion to the business in question. Tell them you will never use their products. Then, don’t. End of story.

8 thoughts on “When Bad PR Is Good For Business

  1. My issue is primarily with Etsy’s policy regarding hate and obscenity. If they’ve got one, why have they allowed this to become an issue at all? If they don’t have a policy just tell us, “Pretty much any ugly thing you want to sell is fine.” They drop people for infractions all of the time. And why censure community discussion of issues that pertain to all sellers? If they’ve got no beef with freedom of speech, what are they afraid of?

    1. Joanne, I agree that Etsy’s handling of this leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a mystery why a business with such a strong online community and stated TOS doesn’t want to explain their position, at the very least. I can’t imagine that this particular seller is important to them, but perhaps they see it as a slippery slope. I’m only speculating.

  2. I chose to do this from the beginning, because I could see that attention is what this jerk was after in the first place and refused to even let it pass my lips or fingers, up until my FB friends and my forum friends started suggesting things, so then I did my research on this shop which I do not agree. In this case if we don’t keep pointing him out, he will pretty much go away, because no one really wanted his cards to begin with until the media told the masses that you didn’t want any of his merchandise. I was very upset by the fact that those that so vehemently opposed this inappropriate shop then went as far as to lump all Etsy Sellers to him for not trying to censor this person by closing my store down. We might as well quit using the internet entirely until they take his website off line, too. Yeah, that will show him. If it hadn’t been for all the hoopla, I would never known about this fool not to mention, why should I change my behavior or lose business because some stranger that I have never heard of and don’t care to be associated with, cannot behave? I cannot control anyone buy myself, so I keep a positive message and attitude and do my own thing. Don’t like it, you are welcome to pass up my shop, just as you are welcome to pass up any shop that is not right for you. That is the choice we all have as Americans, and it works both ways.

    1. Thanks, Laura. Yes, I’m repelled by many of the cards, but, honestly, as you point out, this is a matter of personal choice. I say, let the market decide. (And I was reluctant to name him, but just couldn’t resist, because the very name points out how out of place he is in a marketplace like Etsy.)

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  4. the cards are tasteless, but they don’t condone or promote an illegal act.
    umm… I think rape is an illegal act last time I looked.
    To me the main reason to boycott is not even the subject matter as much as the lack of business responsibility.
    So you have a person selling vile and has been now successful in selling 89 cards huh. At the expense of little innocent children, rape victims, breast cancer victims. Point noted.
    The point noted I have not heard about is that they evidently give a flying fig about all the other hard working sellers. Artists, crafters including mom and pop SAHMs etc.
    If they did it would not even be a topic of discussion.
    A petition currently trying to get to 25000 vs 89 sales. The math does not compute.
    I personally had a shop on Etsy but got out about a year ago when in a survey to the sellers they asked me “what kind of spirit animal did I see myself as. ”
    Craziest way of doing business I had ever heard of.
    I really, really feel for all the sellers on this site and how these antics affect bottom line. Possibly you are correct and it just bring traffic.
    Very sad indeed. Little children should not suffer for traffic.
    Downs Syndrome children, sellers children etc. IMHO of course.

  5. Interesting observation, Sandra. I understand your POV, and it sounds like you’ve had experience with Etsy that I lack, but I see it differently, at least in comparison to the book that caused the controversy on Amazon. Not to dignify what people are calling the “rape” card, because it’s very offensive, but it’s more a mocking congratulations over being “bad touched.” Tasteless, weird, twisted, but not exactly a user’s guide IMO.
    Mike, I’ve been on the site, and, suprisingly, there are many cards that aren’t offensive to me, just a little sarcastic. And there are others that really cross the line. (Which makes it all the more baffling why those showcased on Etsy were chosen!) To reiterate, I don’t think they belong on Etsy. But, as far as their place on the Web overall, I’d vote with my wallet.

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