MIKE MASTERSON: Down on a tee

Impeaching good will

Posted: July 10, 2018 at 5:30 a.m.

I wouldn't want to be the Walmart executive who approved the third-party online sale of "Impeach 45" T-shirts--if anyone other than an electronic device even made that decision.

It may be crazy, but I'd be impeached if I allowed the good will of my company to rely upon a clearly undependable automated system as its gatekeeper.

These politically flammable T-shirts certainly set emotions ablaze across much of red-state mid-America last week before the world's retailing Godzilla quickly and wisely decided to drop the items from its website.

My questions are how and why Walmart would needlessly alienate oh, I dunno, maybe half its customer base to financially support selling political hate clothing on its website. Was some screening machine not programmed with Walmart policy? After all, the corporation afterwards did say this stuff violated its policies.

Bottom line is, Walmart allowed this third-party seller to use its online sales service to peddle a radical political view. The fact it happened leaves a bad taste lingering among thousands of angry customers with many other choices. Threats of a boycott continued on social media even after the shirts and even some baby clothing with similar messages were dropped.

I wouldn't dispute the fact Americans thankfully remain able to express themselves freely, which is as it should be. Wear an " Impeach Trump" shirt if that's your personal viewpoint. But it becomes a different matter when the world's largest retailer to customers of all ages, income levels and political stripe needlessly becomes a sales agent for such an obviously antagonistic agenda. And it wasn't the first time.

I've written before about the needlessly self-destructive trend of late for businesses to alienate so many customers from all religions and political bents.

What form of business madness is this? The recent fiasco with White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., leaps to mind.

Couldn't the Hen's owner and her impetuous wait staff have instead told Sanders and her dinner party (in a civil manner) as they paid their check how deeply they disagreed with the administration's policies?

Wouldn't that have been the prudent, rational and, oh, I dunno, adult thing to do?

Meanwhile, back at the impeachment shirts, I can ask the same question. Was it smiley-faced business practice to accept the inflammatory, third-party shirts and similarly worded baby clothing for sale on Walmart's website?

Had I been making this policy decision, the T-shirt-peddling haters of our duly elected president likely would have heard something along the lines: "I'm sorry, but we choose not to needlessly alienate at least half our online customer base by becoming radically political in our online offerings."

They may have, but I don't recall Walmart offering "Impeach Obama" items for sale online.

In news coverage over this flap, I discovered this from Fortune: "Walmart, in a statement to Fortune Tuesday afternoon, reacted to the complaints, saying, 'These items were sold by third-party sellers on our open marketplace, and were not offered directly by Walmart. We're removing these types of items pending review of our marketplace policies.'"

That statement sounded a lot like the brief explanation Walmart made last December when a journalist advocacy group told the retailer it felt threatened by a T-shirt for sale on its website reading: "Rope. Tree. Journalist. SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED."

Facing complaints, the retailer pulled the shirt from its website within hours.

Good grief, people. Who, if anyone, has been the gatekeeper over such online offerings? Obviously his or her standards for acceptance have been nonexistent or buried in the muck at rock bottom. Was the unnecessary loss of good will among so many really worth the relatively few bucks made from appealing to those who would wear such stuff?

Amazon faced a similar situation in 2013 when T-shirts that said: "Keep Calm and Rape A Lot" appeared on its online sales site. That third-party clothing company blamed a "scripted computer process" designed to borrow from the classic "Keep Calm and Carry On" World War II posters, one news story said.

The rape-promoting shirts, along with companions "Keep Calm and Hit Her" and "Keep Calm and Knife Her," somehow just slipped through the company's algorithmic cracks and past Amazon itself. Quite some slip, I say.

Such public relations crises appear to be caused by the fact that retailers whose sites are available to third-party sellers (or those relying upon any third-party distributors). Online retailers obviously must perfect an effective method of monitoring all content that winds up on their sites. One wag understated: Automated scanning systems, apparently, aren't up to the task as they're built today.

The only words that leap to my tiny brain in this latest business brouhaha connected with a sadly divided nation rife with vulgarity, anger and incivility are great Scott, ye gads, and, of course, ahcheewawa!

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 07/10/2018