T-shirt business ruined after offensive rape slogan

An online shirt shop kicked off Amazon for trying to boost its numbers with randomized apparel phrases runs out of cash.

By Jason Notte Mar 5, 2013 5:14PM
Man walking past a Second World War 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster (Rawdon Wyatt/Alamy)As a company with six employees relying on a computer algorithm to spew out T-shirt catchphrases, you'd think Solid Gold Bomb would have wanted to dedicate some time to eliminating words like "rape" from its list of cleared random phrases.


Just days after Amazon (AMZN) shut down Solid Gold Bomb's accounts after it produced shirts with phrases like "Keep Calm and Rape a Lot," company founder Michael Fowler told CNN Money that his company is "dead in the water" as a result. According to Fowler, his company, based in Worcester, Mass., has enough cash to make payroll on Friday and that's about it.

Fowler issued an apology on his company's website, but the red flags leading to his company's demise should have been easier to spot than the offensive slogans on the company's shirts. Fowler started producing the “Keep Calm” T-shirts as a parody of the British "Keep Calm and Carry On" propaganda posters from World War II that were embroiled in a copyright dispute both here and in Europe. He decided to “create a large-scale release of parodies (something T-shirt companies often do) and relied on both computer based dictionaries and online educational resources.”

The one hitch in his plan to hit the button and watch the money roll in was that “parody” and the definition thereof never found its way into the company's 700-word database. “Rape,” “knife,” “hit” and “her” certainly did, though. Fowler didn't even realize something had gone wrong until he was in Melbourne, Australia, having his morning cup of coffee and checking Facebook at home, only to see his company's Facebook page littered with accusations of misogyny and death threats.

Fowler says the actual shirts never existed, but images of said shirts were enough to spark the outcry. Yet he also admits that he never gave the company's list of random words a close look and simply used it to boost his catalog offerings from 1,000 to 10 million in an attempt to game Amazon and make his shirts visible to more customers.

"We migrated the business to be print on demand," he told CNN. "It's a numbers game, a quantitative culture. It's never been about taking the time to develop a beautiful design."

Now, just after the arrival of Fowler's third child, his business is almost completely ruined. By attempting to skip over a key design element while dabbling in math with unforeseen ramifications, Fowler learned a lesson that fortune cookie makers learned long ago: Check in on the product every so often. A low-maintenance, low-overhead business on autopilot sounds like a small business coup, but stay on autopilot for too long and you'll be back down to earth just as quickly as you ascended.

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Mar 5, 2013 7:47PM
It's okay. It wasn't legitimate rape.
Mar 5, 2013 7:54PM
Mar 5, 2013 10:40PM
Another case of out-sourcing the actual work to a) overseas and/or b) a machine that is incapable of any real thought.
Where the HELL were the humans who were supposed to be making sure nothing like this happens?

Mar 5, 2013 8:15PM

I hope they had a shirt that said "Close your eyes and think of England"  Wink, wink, nudge nudge. Say no more, say no more.

Mar 5, 2013 11:00PM
Mar 5, 2013 8:33PM
So?  T-shirts are offensive.  Go to Spencers.  Go to tshirthell dot com.  People will wear shirts with any kind of absurd comment or image.  He didn't lose his company because he didn't oversee his product.  He lost it because he didn't cultivate his clientele.  Find a talented graphic designer and a priceless parody and you'll sell tens of thousands of shirts to the right kind of people.  Keep Calm and Carry A Condom.
Mar 5, 2013 11:41PM
Keep Calm...And File For Bankruptcy.
Mar 5, 2013 8:02PM
Holy, that apology letter made my head hurt, completely filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Stupid is as stupid does.
Mar 5, 2013 8:20PM
Who's dumber, the jerks printing the rape slogan or the wackies reacting to it?
Mar 5, 2013 10:14PM
 you can only blame a technical glitch up to a certain point.  If the word "rape" was in their algorithms, then they were intending to create offensive slogans to appeal to the depraved.
Mar 5, 2013 10:13PM
this rube did it to himself and his employees.......how STUPID can one be?.
Mar 6, 2013 12:24AM
I don't get it.  So you design T-shirts, sell them on the web, yet have no fricken clue what they even say?  Did I miss something?  If you don't even know what you're selling (error and all) than maybe you should go out of business!
Mar 5, 2013 9:26PM
I guess his business went from "top" to "bottom"!
Mar 5, 2013 7:33PM
I must wonder why you needed to travel on business.  Your post is filled with grammatical errors and words spelled incorrectly.
Mar 5, 2013 10:32PM
The female hypocrisy here is amazing. Women are outraged. Yet the keep silent on wardrobe malfunctions, plunging necklines, hiked dresses showing bare camel toes, allow their children to dress in skin tight spandex shorter than short pants, plunging blouses with peek a boob sightings, nipple protruding blouses, and are outraged with a shirt.  Oh and pink written over the bottoms of womens clothing.  Gals you can't have it both ways.  I'll flaunt my sex but don't think rape or write it. 
Mar 5, 2013 10:08PM
stay calm with Rosey Palm....    ;-)~
dabbling in math with unforseen consequenses is how we got the atomic bomb.
Mar 6, 2013 1:12AM
Great lesson in proofing your designs BEFORE they go public. Stupid is as stupid does.
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