Keeping Calm

"keep calm" t-shirtI have been shocked – and hurt – by the T-shirt story:  T-shirts with ‘Keep Calm and Rape Me’ emblazoned across the front were being sold by a tin pot bunch of T-shirt traders, Solid Gold Bomb, on Amazon.

I’ve seen some ridiculous assertions that the whole thing was created by an algorithm and aren’t we all digitally stupid if we think a real person had a hand in it anywhere? Oh, and it’s just fine for the T-shirt company to simply issue an apology.

Sorry, but no!

I’ve even seen articles suggesting that the slogan was created by a machine – which, incidentally, I doubt. Someone had to press the button to approve it.Someone had to upload it to the shop, and categorise it. These things don’t happen automated start to finish. There would be a whole load of computer generated linguistic impossibilities available for purchase if that were anything like true. So perhaps the apologists can now take a step down. And Solid Gold Bomb must come clean!

It’s far more likely that someone, somewhere, thought that a great way to earn some links back to their site was to create a controversy. And as a tactic it can work. (See: Fifty shades of negative

This, however, scrapes the barrel. It’s the worst kind of cynical marketing you can think of. Google and Amazon and others are merrily rewarding them with visits and ‘linkjuice’. It’s the worst kind of gaming the system. Thanks to this little scandal the T-shirt shop will have found itself a better search ranking.

I do hope they think the price that others are paying was worth it. In my early 20’s I was very close to a girl who was raped at knifepoint. The police weren’t somewhere you’d go for help at the time, unless you wanted your own behaviour and sexual history put under the microscope. My friend changed. She started running. She could never settle and left a trail of broken and abusive relationships behind her. The man concerned almost certainly repeat offended. Rape ruined her life, and the life of the people who tried to love her.

And she’s just one, small, story that demonstrates that rape and beatings are never a joke. I really hope that whoever put that page there thinks that the rankings were worth it. I’ve seen links back from all kinds of media properties.

So here’s a challenge to Google. You took Interflora out of the rankings for buying advertorial. What Solid Gold Bomb has done is worse, far worse. Far worse. At very least they should be treated as hosting adult and offensive content.  So reward these guys, who have used a scandal to earn links from Sky, the Sun and other hot media properties, by treating them as they’ve deserved. Maybe it would send a message to others about using cheap, shock tactics.

I sincerely hope that the SEO or PR company that thought messing with someone’s reputation also had the experience and wisdom to warn them in advance that when emotions run high, people do bad things.  These directors are far from blame free, but they’ve received death threats and had to remove all of their details from the web. That was utterly predictable.

We can all do something about this. Take down the links and articles. Review them as the 1/10 that their behaviour deserves. And join a call to get Google to take action. If we don’t, this kind of shock tactic will continue to hurt people as collateral damage in the clamour for rankings.

 

 

 

12 Comments

  • By Danny Bradbury, March 2, 2013 @ 6:17 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I certainly shan’t be writing about them.

  • By claireatwaves, March 2, 2013 @ 7:00 pm

    Thanks Danny

  • By Alex, March 3, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    Why not believe that the entire process is automated? Solid Gold Bomb currently has 778,436 items listed on amazon all with identical pricing and descriptions. And as you mention there are many linguistic impossibilities such as “keep calm and occur a lot” or “keep calm and mimic in” and so on. Automating this kind of task is very easy, and could be done in a day or two by an experience programmer. It’s certainly easier to automate than to manually submit almost a million designs. You may find this article from the new york times interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/14/business/media/14link.html?pagewanted=all . It describes how one man designed an algorithm to generate hundreds of thousands of books and list them on amazon, surely a more difficult task.

  • By claireatwaves, March 3, 2013 @ 1:16 pm

    I’ll have to take your word for it that these multiple options were/are there, I didn’t find them. I do find it hard to believe that the whole thing was automated. Their site – and again, I may well have been looking at the wrong one – has everything categorised.

    I am perhaps a little too close to the subject matter, and rape is an emotive issue, but the fact that the very nastiest of 778,436 listings were taken and propelled says to me that there’s some kind of marketing happening with no care for the sensitivities of those whose suffering is very real.

    I’m not calling for censorship – I’m sure that there are niches of people who find it funny. But it is a select niche of people who find violence against women (or other groups) amusing. This content merits categorising as adult. If Interflora can have its search results censored by Google because it’s paid for advertising somewhere, surely to goodness a bunch of profit seeking T-shirt makers printing broadly offensive statements without any manual check on what’s there deserve to be treated as adult content? Perhaps more so because of the irresponsibility of using a machine with no care for the consequences? Words are emotive. They cause wars, rifts, heroes, failures. I don’t want my kids exposed to that as ‘normal’.

    Thanks for coming back on the automation issue though, and caring enough to respond – happy to eat humble pie on that front :-)

  • By Oiva, March 3, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

    “I do find it hard to believe that the whole thing was automated.”

    There’s nothing here that couldn’t be automated. The texts are likely to have been generated by an algorithm (you could of course argue that the set of words was chosen by a human, but I disagree – I mean, thinking from an efficiency standpoint, why bother?).

    The images of the t-shirts are generated by placing the texts on top of a picture of t-shirt because no one would want to do that for hundreds of thousands of times by hand. The products are added to Amazon and priced automatically – there’s software that makes up the “right” price. And as stated elsewhere, these shirts don’t actually exist before someone orders one – it’s actually the same thing with some rarer books.

    I haven’t followed the issue enough to comment on the PR side of it, or responses from the parties. Just wanted to point out that even if it seems odd or a technically hard thing to do, doesn’t mean that these products couldn’t be generated by a computer. See for example this story, where a programmer wrote 800,000 books to sell them on Amazon: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/143382-programmer-creates-800000-books-algorithmically-starts-selling-them-on-amazon (Of course none of these exist either, and they are only printed should someone buy them.)

  • By claireatwaves, March 3, 2013 @ 9:25 pm

    The texts are automated, I can get that, biut the whole posting to |Amazon things needs some kind of intervention in my experience – but I don’t run a retail outlet and if you and Alex both advise that this is possible, I stand corrected.

    I think the more important issue is that just because you don’t have a manual input you don’t have to be held to account for what you’ve published.

    But thank you for bothering to let me know about the automation. I hadn’t blogged for a while (really bad, given my profession, but client work always takes priority!) It’s nice when people take the time.

  • By Max, March 4, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

    It was entirely automated. Your post – not believing that it was so even after a clear explanation – is problematic. Claire, I appreciate that this is a massive, massive issue but you aren’t actually “standing corrected,” as you say, above – you’ve left your original comments on Pete’s website, and your post on your own blog hasn’t changed. Go look at Solid Gold Bomb’s own website and see how they’ve dealt with this issue. No one had to press a button to approve these shirts, as you assert (without anything other than your own instincts). Your initial post asks people to take down links and articles when they aren’t appropriate: I think yours falls into that category now.

  • By claireatwaves, March 4, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

    I’m sorry you feel this article should be taken down. I’ve obviously not made myself clear, for which I apologise.

    I saw nothing in the article by Pete (or his extremely vulgar and nasty response on Twitter) or when I looked at the site that suggests the article was actually automated, but, as I’ve noted, it may well have been tidied up by the time I looked. I hadn’t seen or heard any convincingly clear explanation regarding the supposed automation as yet – just a couple of hypotheticals which ran contra to my own experience of categorising things into shops on Amazon.

    Moreover, even if you’re playing the kind of word shuffle through an automated system as suggested, the word rape was in there in the first place. (And having just looked up the latest apology, it is actually the case that the word was left in – so the consequences were utterly predictable.)

    Automating it, without a care as to the consequences, and not being bothered to check what appears, is worse. It implies that this was merely fishing for reactions and the fact that the image was publicised throughout the nationals further suggests to me that there was some publicity/link seeking at hand. Of course I don’t know, and neither, unless there’s something you’ve not stated here, do you. We only have the word of a director who was careless of what hurt might be caused by what was published.

    The automation’excuse’ is irrelevant: those who are using it to excuse them are inadvertently becoming apologists for incitement to rape. And before you yell “it’s just an image” it’s not. I spent a long time researching this for an article when I was a journalist: making sexual violence ‘funny’ normalises it, justifies it in the mind of people who would otherwise have barriers. People who start with silly verbal banter go on to ‘silly’ exposure, go on to assault….

    The point I have evidently failed to make is that rape is painful, both for its victims and those around them, and using it like this – for cheap profit/publicity – is unacceptable both for it’s ‘normalisation’ of something unacceptable, and for it’s consequences. (It could be you, your family, your friends, next.)

    As it happens, I appear to be in a minority who care about it, and Interflora’s back in its place, so I’ve let this lie rather than stirring anything further. It is entirely up to you whether you do the same: unlike your buddy Pete, I’m happy to engage with/tolerate people who want to comment on something I’ve written. I put it here in the first place to inspire debate, and if it does that, it can’t be a bad thing – even if it was written in a somewhat emotive moment! As long as people are tackling the content/ideas rather than being personally abusive, I’m happy to publish their comments.

    Incidentally, I did look at the solid Gold Bomb site at the weekend and saw that all of the directors details had been removed and that they had been sent death threats. I do not condone or support this. As noted above, I do think it was utterly predictable to anyone whose been in a PR role for any length of time. There are a lot of nutters out there, and if you encourage people to play with fire, fingers get burned. Those who use negative PR need to understand what they are playing with.

    The apology that’s there now isn’t the one that was there at the weekend, and as Amazon has removed the site, I think justice has, to some extent been done. But not without opening a lot of wounds for a lot of rape victims, which is the tragic consequence of this carelessness, and what I had hoped to point out in what I wrote originally.

    (I would go and add an addendum to Pete’s website – but he’s blocked me and closed off comments. The addendum would say that the word ‘rape’ was included in the algorithm, so automation is no excuse.)

  • By Owen, March 5, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Claire – don’t let the dicks commenting here get you down. The argument pro and con automation is a complete red herring. And they know it which is why they are pushing it so hard. And your article does NOT need to be taken down – because the point of your article is the offensiveness not how it came into being. And even if the algorithm was built to grab phrases randomly across the internet without anyone looking at them ‘keep calm and [insert any two one syllable words found at random here]’ that doesn’t excuse the result. Sounds like the initial responses were poor and only the escalation actually achieved anything.

    In addition for the supporters of automatic creation out there – in the long run it is clearly a stupid idea and frankly Amazon should be being asked what they are doing to stop the automation of shops like this.

  • By claireatwaves, March 6, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    Hi Owen, and thanks for your support.

    I wouldn’t normally allow a comment through that called other people names, but I hope you won’t mind me using this as a chance to say that I don’t think they’re “dicks” for not agreeing with me – I always feel that the onus is on me to make myself clear, and if they’ve thought I was asking for the articles to be taken down because of the automation issue, I obviously wasn’t clear enough. I’ll do better next time.

    It was absolutely lovely of you to express support – I felt very strongly on this issue, and wish people would just take their responsibilities as seriously as their money making!

  • By Max, March 7, 2013 @ 12:03 am

    Claire, sorry, I just can’t get behind your post. These t-shirts (that don’t exist) are, in fact, totally automated. You say that someone had “to press the button to approve it” but that’s just totally wrong, and not based in fact at all. The guys at SGB have posted a long and very sincere apology on their webpage; they are also removing all of these terrible, terrible virtual shirts.

    What I have massive trouble with here is your assertion that “someone, somewhere, thought that a great way to earn some links” which is patently ridiculous. This is the worst sort of publicity. It’s not “50 shades of negative,” as you assert.

    My real issue is that you’re equating being a “rape apologist” with explaining how the internet works. Rape is terrible, inexcusable, and can never be apologised for.

    But the fact that it’s so terrible doesn’t excuse us from rationality when discussing it. Pete Ashton has NEVER been a rape apologist – he states very clearly that the t-shirts “are inexcusable” but he wants to explain how they came to be.

    And he is right: they were auto-generated. Not just by SGB: Amazon (I hope you would agree) would also NEVER want to sell something like this (in fact, their rules explicitly prohibit this). But they “approved” it as well. Why would a publicly traded company ever endorse rape? They wouldn’t (not should they). So why do you think Amazon approved this? And if they didn’t, why is it possible that they didn’t but somehow SGB did?

    The only way we’re ever going to truly end rape is if we learn to – as hard as this is – have rational discussions. You haven’t added anything to that rationality: you’ve actually taken away from it, and levelled a terrible accusation at someone who is anything but, as far as I can tell, a rape apologist. For someone who works in communications, I find this to be quite egregious.

  • By claireatwaves, March 7, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    OK, despite the personal insult, I’ve let this comment through because it raises some important issues.

    Lets unravel this.

    Firstly, the automation, which is what your response is about, and which is a red herring. Although the creation of the offending items was largely automated, what went in had to be put there (and I saw the site as it was – it was all carefully categorised, so someone, somewhere, has, at some level organised the data. In that data was the term ‘rape someone’.

    So automation, which I accept happens, and has to some extent somewhere in this story, does not let people off the hook. It was ill advised at best, cheap publicity and link seeking at worst.

    I was hugely upset by it, having lived through the fallout of rape at knifepoint. I didn’t mention Pete in my article, he’s obviously hot under the collar about it. I wish he was directing his anger at the people who let this out there, and engaging in a sensible conversation, rather than ranting at people who’ve had all kinds of nasty experiences relived thanks to this judgement in error.

    I’d like us to get back to the issue this story sought to raise, which is that using shock tactics for the generation of links and/or publicity has to be unacceptable – the price paid by others is too high. And if this company were advised by a third party, they were ill advised: I don’t think they’ve had an easy time of it. I believe they’ve even received death threats. How awful is that?

    Ethics are a really, really important part of communications, so I don’t find it egregious to be saying that this T-shirt should never have been out there, and automation is no excuse at all.

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