Slow-moving PR disaster tarnishes Etsy brand

The well-regarded online marketplace does the ostrich act concerning a line of tasteless cards. Who suffers? Its other vendors and many of its (former) customers. UPDATED


Editor’s note: This post originally ran in January of 2011. We are running it as part of a look-back at the top stories on Ragan.com. This was the third most-read story on public relations in 2011.

UPDATE: As of Friday, Jan. 14, Etsy changed its policy and will no longer work with this vendor due to consumer backlash. Read the full statement.

Etsy, the online marketplace self-described as “Your place to buy and sell all things handmade, vintage and supplies,” is the latest brand to suffer a full-on image meltdown. Like BP, Tiger Woods and Toyota before them, it’s also the latest brand to resolutely stick its head in the sand as a way of dealing with PR crisis and the resultant public outcry.

Etsy, the online marketplace self-described as “Your place to buy and sell all things handmade, vintage and supplies,” is the latest brand to suffer a full-on image meltdown. Like BP, Tiger Woods and Toyota before them, it’s also the latest brand to resolutely stick its head in the sand as a way of dealing with PR crisis and the resultant public outcry.

A friend alerted me late last week to the fact that Etsy was allowing a vendor to sell some very offensive greeting cards and shared Change.org’s petition requesting that Etsy remove the cards—to date supported by almost 16,000 signatures. This friend has a daughter with Down syndrome and was especially horrified by this image.

Let me back up and say that I’ve been a huge Etsy fan and supporter for a long time now. I love dealing with craftsmen and artisans, and I have patronized Etsy vendors for years. I’ve often preferred to go to Etsy for the things I’m looking for rather than eBay, because the community they’ve created has always evoked a good feeling—a feeling of trust.

Then I discovered Etsy seller YouStupidBitch and the line of greeting cards they create and sell on Etsy with a clever tagline “Greeting Cards for Awkward Situations.”

This Etsy seller makes cards that congratulate the recipient on being raped, or on being diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, or having a child with Down syndrome, to name just a few. Appalled? I was.

Here’s a CNN report covering the latest Etsy stinkbomb that’ll get you completely up to speed:

This situation is reminiscent of the recent brouhaha on Amazon about the book “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct” that went on sale Oct. 28, 2010. After much outcry on Twitter and Facebook and by Amazon customers, Amazon finally yanked the book about two weeks later.

Amazon defended its actions in letting the book remain on the site because it “believes it is censorship not to sell certain books simply because we or others believe their message is objectionable. Amazon does not support or promote hatred or criminal acts, however, we do support the right of every individual to make their own purchasing decision.”

Amazon customers vehemently disagreed and made no bones about that displeasure. I recently Tweeted about a book available on Amazon only to have someone respond that they refused to buy from Amazon based on that lapse of judgment on their part. Apparently, a lot of people object to the availability of pedophilia “how-to” literature on a site such as Amazon.

Before people get all First Amendment crazy on me, those rights relate to restrictions on speech issued about the government—not the policies of retailers such as Amazon or Etsy. Those sites make their own rules, and if they choose not to carry merchandise promoting hatred, pedophilia or religious intolerance, they can.

As my friend PRCog opines in a post on this very topic, these cards are against Etsy’s TOS and they’ve been notified. Repeatedly. Those TOS aren’t at all unclear:

“Use of mature, profane and/or racist language or images in the public areas of your Etsy shop is not permitted. This includes your username, Public Profile, item titles, tags, avatar, banner and/or shop selections.”

And Prohibited Items: “Items that promote or glorify hatred, racial, religious intolerance.”

Call me crazy, but rape seems to me to be both mature and profane. And picking on someone’s kid with Down syndrome—or any other disability—well if that’s not hatred, I’m not sure what is.

These greeting cards and everything they stand for are reprehensible. And I can’t imagine anyone—ever—receiving one and thinking it was funny. Being raped isn’t a joke. Nor is having cancer or AIDS or a child with a disability.

As bad as all this is—and as crappy as it is for a brand to advocate that it’s OK to sell this kind of merchandise—where the brand really disappoints is its lack of regard for its sellers. The way I see it, Etsy has a fiduciary responsibility to its sellers to do the right thing. Always. Because if Etsy makes a misstep—like this one—it can spell disaster for the many entrepreneurs and craftspeople trusting Etsy as an upstanding and reliable venue in which to sell their products.

This situation could—and probably has—resulted in a loss of sales for thousands of Etsy vendors—people who have nothing to do with YouStupidBitch and who are, like the rest of us, horrified by the audacity and the bad taste of this particular product line.

Consumers are an entirely different story. They aren’t thinking about that part of the puzzle. Consumers are thinking that Etsy sucks, and, just like Amazon, they’re boycotting the site and making their purchases elsewhere. Although Etsy can probably withstand that financial downturn, its sellers most likely cannot; that’s also tragic. It might also be something from which thousands of Etsy sellers simply cannot recover.

So, because of poor judgment and decision-making, the public is offended and horrified by Etsy’s business practices and/or lack of business ethics, Etsy sellers lose credibility and income, and the morons behind YouStupidBitch get tons of publicity that they don’t deserve.

Great job, Etsy. Keep your head firmly in the sand. And join the ranks of other brands who aren’t smart enough to just step up, admit to a mistake and fix the problem.

Read the full article on PRBreakfastClub.com.

Shelly Kramer is the CEO of V3 Integrated Marketing and blogs at V3, and guest blogs on occasion at PRBreakfast.com.

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