George Carlin Customization: 47 words you can’t use on custom NIKE sneakers

by Joseph Flaherty on October 21, 2008

Mass customization presents a number of technical challenges: material science, equipment cost, the need for training, but the social constraints are equally complex. When brands allow anyone to use their products to make a personal statement (and create an implicit endorsement) filters are necessary.

Sometimes this is to serve the community, in the case of Boing Boing, dropping vowels from curse words, creating an environment of civility. With NIKEiD, the service that allows you to customize sneakers with embroidered messages, the filters are intended to protect the brand. Nike posts a customization policy on their site, justifiably reserving the right to cancel orders that contain content they “…consider inappropriate or simply do not want to place on our products.”

Experimenting with the NIKEiD configurator reveals an inconsistent application of this policy. Obvious curse words, including those made famous by George Carlin, and many variations are banned, but the following list is replete with bizzare judgment calls. For instance what drove the decision to allow sneakers that say “lardass”, but not “ass”. Drug references are another touchy area. Was permitting “chronic” an oversight? Or was it allowed to cultivate credibility with customers in the know? Most interesting are words that are prohibited, or allowed, because of the nature of the product.

As customization becomes mainstream filters like this going to become a common part of our shopping experience. It will be fun to watch how these tools keep up with our evolving language and are balanced to allow expression while protecting brands. Current prohibited words include:

Labor

Some decisions are obvious. Sensitive to sweatshop and unfair labor charges, and having been criticized before, NIKE bans SWTShop, Slave, and ChildLBR, but allows kidswork. Banning Sweatshop is no-brainer, but they also disallow the sporty Sweat.

Geopolitics

As an international corporation Nike has to be mindful of cultural issues. Hitler and BinLaden are prohibited, but Stalin is acceptable. Hussein is also banned, but I wonder if this will change after the election? You can get Al Qaeda and Hezbollah sneaks, but not ones that say Patriot (likely due to trademark issues since Patriotic passes). You can’t get shoes that say Terrorist, Terror or Fear.

The world’s religions deserve respectful treatment and Christian, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, are all acceptable personalizations. However deities are treated differently: Yahweh and Jesus are permitted, but Christ and Allah are not.

Intellectual Property

The intellectual property of other companies must be respected, so Superman and Batman are non-starters, but Spiderman is ok (a licensing deal?). Superhero names are ambiguous, but Wolverine is clear nono as it overlaps with another footwear company’s brand. You can get Walmart, Tacobell, or Dominos kicks, but not Target, McDonalds, or Wendys.

Crime

As a good corporate citizen Nike bans gang names and other violent words. Murder is prohibited. Stealing, with its baseball connection, is OK. Permitting Assault is confusing given that athletic terms, Punch (boxing) and Kick (soccer/football) are prohibited.

KKK, 666, 187, 420 and XXX are all blocked.

Sex

The fact that Prostitutes are banned but Hookers are not seems odd. Skank is fine, but Slut is not. Sex no Sexy yes. Herpes is accepted, AIDS prevented.

Drugs

Hash, Chronic are permitted, but Weed, Reefer, Maryjane, and Blunt are not. Cocaine and Meth are prohibited. Heiniken and SamAdams are considered tasteful, but Coors is not. Nike will allow you to get Drunk sneakers, but doesn’t want you getting High sneakers.

Goofy

Balls are permitted given the athletic connotation and Bollocks are not, which makes sense, but why then are Gonads acceptable? (My guess, a RISD alum must have made sure our risque team name makes it through the filter). Speaking of poorly chosen mascot names, Cockfan is allowed – apparently enough fans of the University of South Carolina Gamecocks call themselves this that Nike lets it slide. However the seemingly innocuous Kitty is banned.

For a company centered on athletic achievement, Fatty and Lardass are oddly accepted, but plain Ass or Asswipe are not. Cripple and Crippled are both indelicate, but allowed.

In the case of juvenile fun: Booger and Snot makes it through as do Burp and Belch and if you are feeling Scottish, you can get Shite on your sneakers. However Fart and Poop are considered inappropriate which seems odd given that Butt, Butthole, Butthead are all approved. Keeping in the Beavis & Butthead mindset Dillhole is a nono, but Dillweed is ok.

If anyone happens to have shoes with these phrases on them, I’d be happy to post the pics!



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  • davidsandey

    Hookers might be included because its a position in rugby. Its the name of the position in the middle of the front row of the scrum. His main job is to hook the ball with his foot as it enters the scrum. He also throws the ball in at a line out (traditionally at least).

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    Thanks for the info David. I haven't watched any rugby matches so I appreciate you sharing your expertise. I still think it is a little weird, if only because completely innocuous words like “Kick” are banned, but something with such a potent double meaning is allowed!

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    Spider-Man should be hyphenated.

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    Spiderman might work because the trademarked name is Spider-Man (hyphen, capital M) and no comics nerd would want to face the ridicule from his peers that the misspelling of the webhead's name on his kicks would bring.

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    Haha, Great point! but In trademark law, confusability is a key metric, so if something sounds similar e.g. “Sooperman” it is not allowed. In anycase the ridicule argument is a great one.

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    Unfortunately NIKEiD doesn't permit hyphens. Good call though.

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