April 1, 2013

Amazon defends ad’s use of “c-word” as “light-hearted”


Just over 10 days ago, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned a posting from the retailer “Smellyourmum.com” on Amazon.co.uk that promoted a Christmas card that read, “You’re a cunt. Sorry, I meant to say ‘Merry Christmas’.” Of course, it’s not terribly surprising that a company called “Smellyourmum.com” would create such a tasteless product and it’s not surprising that the ASA would ban it on the grounds of its offensiveness. What is, however, most interesting about this story is that Amazon has vigorously defended the product.

As reported in The Guardian:

In a submission to the ASA Amazon said that it should not have been banned because “the card was not offensive, aggressive or lewd in its message. It was meant as a bit of light-hearted, irreverent fun”.

Amazon said that the wording of the card “did not target any particular group, nor was it likely to cause offence to any particular race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age”…

Amazon said that just because a “small minority” might find the word offensive the product should not be banned from being made available for the “wider public” to buy.

“The humour might not be to everybody’s taste [but] the subjective values of a small minority who might find it distasteful should not dictate a product’s availability or the method of its advertisement to the wider public,” the company said in its submission to the ASA.

It’s clear from this response that Amazon wants to have its misogynistic cake and eat it too. There’s no “lighthearted, irreverant fun” here. The card’s sole intention is to titillate, to trade on a word’s offensiveness for cheap laughs — defending it by declaring that it’s inoffensive, as Amazon does, is oxymoronic. If the card truly was “inoffensive,” it simply wouldn’t exist.

Amazon’s bullish response is not only poorly reasoned, it’s also condescending, as it explicitly attempts to marginalize the grievances of people who do, in fact, find it offensive. But as we saw less than two months ago with the fallout from The Onion‘s tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, this kind of language is considered “offensive, aggressive, [and] lewd” by plenty.

There are other debates to be had here — conversations about language and about Amazon’s responsibilities to its retailers — but it’s clear to me that at the very least, the new overlords of Goodreads owe its customers a more thoughtful response.

Of course, nothing in Amazon’s statement  is as face-palmingly dumb as “Smellyourmum.com’s” defense of their product:

The company behind the card and the ad, said that as the BBC had broadcast a documentary devoted to the word it was acceptable for the company to use it in its advertising.

The company added that the documentary, The History of the C-Word, broadcast on BBC3 in 2007, used the word repeatedly and reached a bigger audience than its ads.

SYM said that because the word was used with a “positive qualifier” – Merry Christmas – it “could convey a positive sense of the person or object referred to.”

Oh, wow.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.