When an Australian-linked online clothing company was found selling offensive and misogynist T-shirts, social media around the world instantly lit up with a predictable storm of outrage.
But the more substantial story was how it happened and how the company tried to explain the crisis.
The issue sprang to prominence when Amazon banned a line of print-on-command T-shirts with slogans such as Keep Calm and Knife Her, Keep Calm and Rape Them, Keep Calm and Choke Her, Keep Calm and Kill Her, and others in the same vein.
Manufacturer Solid Gold Bomb (which began in Australia and later moved manufacturing to the UK and USA) apologised profusely and withdrew the offending offering. But not before commentators and the media launched an unsurprising all-out attack on the apparent promotion of violence against women. However it was when the company tried to explain how the problem arose that more substantial questions began to be asked.
Melbourne-based owner and founder Andrew Fowler posted a lengthy apology, explaining that the T-shirt images were generated by his computer programme which used electronic dictionaries and verb lists to automatically create parody messages based on the British wartime morale-building slogan Keep Calm and Carry on
He said he had no idea that offensive messages had been created, and there seems to be little doubt that he was genuinely shocked and sorry. But did he say too much?
In his excruciatingly detailed 670 word online apology, Fowler took personal responsibility for what he called the “unintended outcome” and repeatedly explained what had happened and how it was “a computer error” of his own creation. However corporate messaging in a crisis must not only be concise and timely and true, but must also be credible.
Critics immediately began to ask how the company could have had “no idea” about the offensive slogans. In Britain’s Daily Mail, conservative MP Caroline Dinenage thundered: “These are ridiculous mindless products for anyone to attempt to sell. It is absurd to say they were manufactured in error.”
That was also a theme on the new Facebook page “Solid Gold Bomb Sucks” with many doubting the print job actually was an accident. And on a Linked-in discussion board Anne McMeel posted: “I can’t believe the ‘lets blame the computer’ defence. Where were the quality control processes? Surely humans were involved somewhere in the process between the generation of the slogan and the manufacture, advertising and dispatch of the T-shirts.”
With sales collapsing, Fowler conceded his company was probably doomed, but he kept on insisting it was all the fault of that pesky computer programme. It appears he truly was sorry and it truly was a mistake. But over-blaming the computer was also a mistake.
As celebrity blogger Perez Hilton commented; “Well, we’re certainly glad no-one actually INTENDED to make shirts that condone rape. But honestly, how could someone be careless enough not to notice.”