I still have the sense of humor I had at the age of twelve, along with a vocabulary that’s slightly larger. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that, among the 25,000 items that Quality Logo Products® offers, I’ve been able to find a few that amuse me. My current item of choice is a particular foam finger.

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As much as I want to get one of those bad boys and on certain days carry it around with me everywhere, I understand that lots of people wouldn’t appreciate it. Even though some theories suggest that the first words that human beings uttered were swear words, we still have limits on how much profanity we’re willing to accept in our society. Limits vary by individual, but we have some norms that generally we agree to follow.

Those norms exist beyond the world of George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on television. We continue to question what words we want to read and hear not only in our entertainment, but also in our advertisements, even on our promotional items. In recent years, businesses, organizations, and individuals too have come under fire for the messages on items they’ve worn or carried.

There’s an argument that controversy is good for business. There’s also an argument that companies should pay greater attention to the effects their messages have as our society grows more connected. And in addition to those two points, there’s been backlash against companies and organizations who use offensive messages on items they sell or give away.

If a company stops selling an item due to public outrage over its message, however, has that company been censored?

More pertinent to our industry, what if a company refuses to print a message on a customer’s promotional items? Is it censorship then?

And is censoring promo items something that promotional products suppliers and distributors can—and should—be doing?

What Is Censorship?

Believe it or not, defining censorship is the easy part. The United States Supreme Court has done it in multiple cases, such as Farmers Education v. WDAY:

“The term censorship, however, as commonly understood, connotes any examination of thought or expression in order to prevent publication of ‘objectionable’ material.”
-U.S. Supreme Court, Farmers Educational & Coop. Union v. WDAY, Inc., 360 U.S. 525, 527 (1959)

And in case the highest court in the land wasn’t authority enough for you, Merriam-Webster has taken a crack at it, too:

censor, verb: to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <censor the news>; also :  to suppress or delete as objectionable <censor out indecent passages>
-Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Even figuring out who can censor isn’t the hard part. You’ll notice that neither of those definitions—or really, most definitions of censorship—make a reference to the U.S. government or a religious body or any other agent. That’s because according to these definitions, any time one group of people imposes its values on another and causes a change in expression, it’s censorship.

That’s right: anyone can be a censor! However, censorship is only unconstitutional if the government does it.

It’s all because of the specific language of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…” So the government and the people who work for it, generally speaking, can’t interfere with expression. When evaluating free expression, courts have two principles guiding them:

  1. No matter how many people are insulted or upset by a message, the government can’t restrict the message just because it’s disagreeable or unpopular. This idea is known as content neutrality.
  2. The government can, however, censor a message if it believes the message directly advocates or causes harm to society. This, building on our social mores, is legally why material like child pornography officially can be labeled obscene and get someone arrested; it’s why we’re not supposed to yell “Fire!” in a really crowded theater when there is no flame. It’s also why a man wearing a jacket that read “Fuck the Draft” into a courthouse was upheld as constitutionally A-OK. The f-bomb may be profane, but Cohen v. California (1971) held that it carried no immediate threat of violence or harm.

In contrast, privately owned institutions and groups of individuals are allowed to call for the removal of language or boycott businesses with messages they find objectionable. As the American Civil Liberties Union points out, that’s part of their freedom of expression.

But it brings up what may be the most difficult aspect of censorship, which is answering a tricky question:

What qualifies as objectionable?

I Object! And So Do I! And…

And I can’t give you a clear answer as to what people will find objectionable or offensive. As I said earlier, limits vary by individuals. I can, however, give you some examples.

Items like t-shirts and silicone bracelets, which are a big part of life here at QLP, are vehicles of expression; they carry messages. As such, they’ve created some controversy in the past:

  • Last year, the Austin Police Association in Austin, Texas, began to sell a t-shirt as a fundraiser. The front of the shirt featured the APA’s logo; the back featured a quote that read, “A society that makes war with its police should be prepared to make peace with its criminals.” The shirt was first made available a few months after controversy arose around an Austin detective’s fatal shooting of a citizen. The shirt was unavailable for a short while after a public outcry but currently is listed for sale again on the APA’s site.
  • Over the past few years, several schools in the U.S. and Canada have banned silicone bracelets from the Keep-A-Breast Foundation that were sold to support breast cancer research. The bracelets read, “I [heart] boobies.” In one instance, two students at Easton Area Middle School near Allentown, Pennsylvania, were given in-school suspensions and prohibited from going to the school’s winter dance when they refused to stop wearing the bracelets. Later, however, their mothers sued, and last year federal courts ruled in favor of the girls’ freedom of expression.
  • Also last year, shoppers on Amazon.com discovered that screenprinting company Solid Gold Bomb was selling a t-shirt that featured a spin on the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The t-shirt in this case instead read (trigger warning), “Keep Calm and Rape a Lot,” one of many controversial variations that Solid Gold Bomb’s shirts presented. After widespread Internet protest, Amazon took down the shirt; continued protest caused Solid Gold Bomb to shut down.

Was the message in each case objectionable? Yes, to at least a few people. Was there censorship in each case? Yep, there sure was. I’m not getting into whether any of this censorship was warranted; that’s a discussion to have across society, if not in the comments section below.

It’s that last example, though, that’s most interesting for this blog post’s purposes. Solid Gold Bomb’s shirts were goods, not pieces of advertising made to promote the company. Still, the closing of a business as a result of a message it printed on a shirt sent shudders through the promotional products industry. As Michael Cornnell at the magazine Promo Marketing wondered, “Does the promotional industry face similar risks…? How much should you be evaluating your customers’ artwork and decorations for content?”

Good questions.

Censorship, Promo Products, and You!

Of course, the best questions often are the hardest to answer. So I turned to representatives from our promotional products suppliers and learned that several companies already have guidelines and processes for considering the content of customers’ order in place:

  • Kippie Helzel, Vice President of Sales at Keystone, expressed her company’s policy straightforwardly, saying that “we will not print any curse word nor suggestive sexual content.”
  • Stephanie Bookbinder, Vice President of Business Development at Jetline Promo, explained that her company has guidelines, if not a formal policy: “If it’s offensive to the artist or printer, they can refuse to process it.  It would also be up to our production manager to determine whether to run the order with a different printer.”
  • Kan Hsu, a representative for Ariel Premium Supply, stated that artists at her company vet each order as well. “If they feel uncomfortable with the message, they should report to management,” she said. “The management team will then evaluate the message to see if it contradicts with our value[s].”

Remember, these companies are private businesses, not agents of the government, so they’re allowed to have those standards for speech and expression and act on them.

[Tweet “”…the value system in the US has gone many directions and become unpredict-able.””]

And act on them they have. Hsu informed me that Ariel has refused orders before. One example she shared was of a porn website hoping to advertise with the Breast Stress Ball, which she said is normally used to promote breast cancer awareness. Another was of an order for some dirty words printed on their Toilet Stress Reliever, which otherwise gets the most use to promote plumbing services. Potty mouth, indeed.

For many promo products companies, the possibility of public backlash isn’t what enters their minds when they try to balance the customer’s interest in creative expression against an interest in respecting people’s sensibilities. As Kan Hsu said, “the value system in the US has gone many directions and become unpredictable. We can only use our best judgment based on the value system we establish here at Ariel.”

That might be the best approach. On the heels of a survey run by Ogilvy and SurveyMonkey that touched briefly on the topic of objectionable content, we recently ran a Google survey of 500 adults in the United States and found that people hold varying opinions on what should happen to companies that produce and use advertising materials widely seen as offensive:

It wouldn’t be a public poll without someone suggesting death by hanging in the “Other” space.

[Tweet “Sixty-four percent of respondents believe a company should be punished for using offensive ads.”]

On a serious note, the results are less damning for promotional products suppliers and distributors. Fewer people seemed likely to hold them responsible for a customer’s message, though the split in the responses hardly leaves them immune.

The business who want to buy promotional products, however, seem to have their work cut out for them. Even without a solid definition of what’s offensive, a majority of our poll respondents believed that the use of offensive advertising materials merited punishment for the company being advertised.

So what can customers do if they think the message or artwork they want to print might be controversial? Stephanie Bookbinder mentioned a good idea: “Typically if it’s something is really questionable, the client will email us before submitting the order for approval.”

There you go. Customers, try talking with your friendly promotional products sales reps before you order. Have a conversation about what will fly and what won’t. That whole discussion about what’s acceptable and what’s not? It’s something that we get to participate in, thanks to the freedom of expression.

About the author

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a promo expert with over four years of experience in the industry. She is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products and has had work published for the Promotional Products Association International and the Advertising Specialty Institute.