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Censorship and Promotional Products: Do You Swear by Your Brand?

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.

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 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.

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:

Censorship and Promotional Products Survey ResultsIt wouldn’t be a public poll without someone suggesting death by hanging in the “Other” space.

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.

What do you think? Should there be consequences for putting offensive messages on promotional products? Have you ever given away promo items with a controversial message on them? Let us know in the comments below!

Quality Logo Products®


Bubba is the Quality Logo Products mascot. He may have started out as "just a stress ball," but he's come a long way since the company's launch in 2003. Bubba has been immortalized in numerous vector artwork designs for internal and external promotions, and you can see him change outfits on the Quality Logo Products homepage whenever a holiday rolls around. Oh, and he thinks pants are for the birds. You can connect with Bubba on


  1. Chase

    Wow! What a good subject! I too think that you should not use swear words in promotions! It is a fine line between funny and crude. This line is easily crossed when people want to make a mark in their respective industry. Getting people to remember your company these days is not easy, and people often try and take the easy way out with using crude words to get people to take notice. I personally think that it is better to be creative than crude. On a side note, many of our production facilities are actually not allowing people to print the 7 dirty words! This has to do with possibly offending someone in the facility during the printing process. So many of those words we will just refuse to print for clients. True story! 🙂

    • Sheila Johnson

      Wow, it’s good to know that the seven dirty words won’t fly at a lot of our suppliers’ facilities. It’s also a good reminder of why talking to a sales rep before placing an order is a good idea! 😉

  2. Jaimie Smith

    This blog was SO interesting! I don’t even know where to begin! Thanks, Sheila for all of this information. Sometimes it baffles me on the things that people like to say, print, promote, etc.

    But let’s be honest, seeing some of these creative ideas, definitely keeps life interesting.

    Great post, Sheila, I LOVED it! 🙂

    • Sheila Johnson

      Thanks, Jaimie!

      Yeah, both Stephanie from Jetline and our own Mike Wenger provided me with some fine examples of QLP’s own interesting promo products from back in the day. Sad to say, I had to leave out those photos because the post just got too long. But ask Mike about the Etch-a-Sketch or the hacky sack if you haven’t seen them!

  3. David

    The interesting thing about censorship is that each and every person has their own definition of offensive and threshold of how far they’ll allow it to be pushed before they get worked up.

    Aahhhh…beautiful human nature.

  4. Jay

    What Matt said.

  5. Matt

    As a former English major who wrote a 35 page paper on swearing (excuse me, “How taboo language can be used by subsets of a mainstream culture to counteract oppressive tenants of that culture” just so I could tell my mom the paper wasn’t about swearing) I feel pretty strongly about censorship. The bottom line is that like with any marketing strategy you need to know who your target demographic is and how they will respond to your message. The flip side of that is understanding and being willing to accept any potential backlash from that message. And with that I’m waaaay over my limit for intellectualism for the week.

    • Sheila Johnson

      Hee hee hee, nooo, Matt, we like your intellectualism!

      Yeah, I think keeping in mind 1) your target demographic’s likely response to the message and 2) your own ideas for your brand’s image are really important to keep in mind when you ponder going the controversial route with your advertising.

  6. Rondell Caraos

    It is a touchy subject for some of our Vendors so when in doubt… we always have to ask the Factory if they will print something “maybe” offensive or not. Depending on the slogan and item, the Factory will determine to give the go or not. In a nutshell, If you have some profanity that you would like to print… ask us and we will see if we can print it or not.

  7. Jon Cacioppo

    Awesome post – I am always torn when I see a promotional product with a curse word or something suggestive on it. I do think it shows you are fun and usually clever … but I don’t think that they are for everyone – which is usually the point of a promotional product.
    You want to get your name out there and not alienate anyone ideally – but maybe if you have a really niche market of customers, you can afford to do something more fun with your giveaways.

  8. Bret Bonnet

    The only place for toilets in advertising is in blog header graphics!

  9. Michael Wenger

    Let’s face it, anyone can be offended by anything. So its my belief that we shouldn’t conduct business and make decisions based on fear (of being offensive in this case). Instead, decisions should be made which are in line with the core values of the company. Every corporation has the social responsibility to make sure their product and marketing is suitable to its intended audience. If the company operates in a medium with a wide audience range, then naturally their marketing should be appropriate for a more diverse group. And in that way, you create your own destiny… Want to portray bigotry? Sexism? Foul Language? Intolerance? Then your business will reap the reward of those labels within your industry. In most cases, I am not sure that’s a good thing. So keep in mind your audience , marry that to your core values, and let those be the ultimate judge of appropriateness.

    • Sheila Johnson

      Yeah, as Kan mentioned, it’s really tough in certain cases to predict how customers will react to a message. I think a good chunk of trouble comes when companies try to embrace controversy not because it fits with their brand image, but because they’re thinking solely of grabbing attention and sales. Those are the companies that really aren’t ready for the consequences. Even companies that do embrace a more controversial image can meet with some fallout, but I suspect they operate trusting that they’ll find a steady enough niche with the customers they intended to target.

  10. angie

    I have worked for an industry supplier previously, and they would not print anything that was against the company’s core values or code of conduct. It did become amusing trying to get the outsourced order entry and art teams to understand what we considered offensive. I had to provide a list of swear words, suggestive words, questionable businesses, and logo examples of rejected art, to those teams, in hopes that they would understand.

    When in doubt, I always check with the supplier.

  11. keith

    This is a very touchy subject indeed. You should always take into account with advertising who your target group is and how will this message be perceived. In this day and age it is unfortunate that one wrong word or phrase can be taken the wrong way and it can blown out of proportion. You want to be different and catchy with your advertisements but keep it clean and classy!

  12. Anthony

    Censorship is a big deal when it comes to being professional. It is also one of those things that can come back and bite you if you use it in the wrong place/context. I also feel that companies that get punished from the use of profanity is only on topics that are really sensitive to the people and shouldn’t be printed on a product as a joke. So censorship to me is important when it comes to work due to the possibility of it coming back to harm you. Great topic to explore and share when it comes to business! 🙂

  13. Greg

    Great blog! You have to know your target demographic!

  14. Dan

    Sheila, you’ve done a terrific job here of summarizing the situation and including great links. I work in advertising and the prevalence of digital marketing and YouTube has opened up a world of crazy, profane and potentially offensive ideas beyond what TV networks or print media would traditionally allow. Many brands have embraced that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But sometimes it can be a bit shocking.

    Seems like you’re sort of in the middle here – you’re not the originator of the message or the end recipient. But your company can always choose which products to make on behalf of clients, and which products not to make. And that’s fine. Although consumers have a funny way of arbitrarily deciding what’s offensive and protest-worthy that none of us can predict. You’ve brought up a great discussion here, and lots of good commenters have weighed in.

    • Sheila Johnson

      Thanks so much, Dan!

      You’re absolutely right about QLP being somewhat in the middle of things. Not only that, but we work with manufacturers and other companies to get people’s items made. So there are additional layers of oversight that a message often passes through.

      That being said, QLP has itself embraced some of the crazier ideas at times. There’s a risk, sure–as you said, sometimes it does seem almost arbitrary how consumers decide what’s worthy of outrage. But I think if a company is confident in its image and message, using such ideas could be liberating and conducive to getting creativity going.

  15. Serenity

    Censorship is a huge problem. The way the world is evolving, putting profane things on promotional products is kind of becoming the norm. In a world where we are surrounded by much worse, I think that small things like this are not really a big deal. As each generation comes up in the world conservative modesty is becoming a thing of the past. Good or bad censorship is never a good thing.

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