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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).

  • 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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  • “Anything that can be personalized will be personalized” » A Co-Created Christmas

    [...] NIKEiD was one of the first companies to take the plunge and allow their users to co-create branded products. Using their service you can choose a base model NIKE shoe, customize the colors and on many models, add a personal message (subject to some restrictions). [...]

  • anon

    Spider-Man should be hyphenated.

  • FMB

    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.

  • Joseph Flaherty

    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.

  • Joseph Flaherty

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

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    George Carlin is hilarious…absolutely love his creative wit, although sometimes he could go overboard…

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    “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.”

    Very strong points you raised there. Some terms clearly differentiate themselves from others, whereas the remainder proves itself worse. So we must be very careful of what we say. After all, silence is often misinterpreted but never misquoted.

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    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. – These facts are undeniably true, and as members of society, we just can't look at these facts and do nothing about it.

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    I never thought that even sneakers customization has some restrictions to follow. Anyways, this article really got me.

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    Such terms should be avoided, or better yet euphemisms must be used to replace them to avoid further confusions which could conjure certain repercussions.

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    Superhero names are ambiguous,a lot of information that words you can’t use on custom NIKE sneakers!,.”,

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    Yet with most of the banning of such words, why is the use of potently double meaning words still prolific?

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    Very nice post. very informative. But I couldnot understand about goofy.

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  • International Oddities

    I don`t know if there will be anyone to buy Nike sneakers if you write curses on them. Maybe only those crazy people who are against everything this world offers. As well as you wrote above, we need to keep a certain civility in this world.

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    The fact that Prostitutes are banned but Hookers are not seems odd. Skank is fine, but Slut is not. -Ironic facts aren't they?

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    it would have been interesting to see any of these words come up on any sneakers.

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    It's only understandable that Nike don't want those “profane” words in their products, just imagine how that will stain the giant brand's name.

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    skank is YES and slut is no? what about adult toys is yes and sex toys is no? weird nike management

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