The difficulty for retailers to enforce their own policies about what third-party vendors can and can’t sell grows with online shopping.
Dec 9, 2019 12:43 pm ET | Updated Dec 9, 2019 1:57 pm ET
The retail giant Walmart says it’s sorry a sweater that showed Santa apparently about to snort three lines of cocaine made it into an online inventory of ugly Christmas sweaters. The words “let it snow” add innuendo to the idea that Santa is about to get lit, and a product description leaves no room for a more generous interpretation.
“We all know how snow works. It’s white, powdery and the best snow comes straight from South America,” the description on Walmart’s website read until the product, manufactured by a company known as FUN Wear, was removed Sunday. “That’s bad news for jolly old St. Nick, who lives far away in the North Pole.
“That’s why Santa really likes to savour the moment when he gets his hands on some quality, grade A, Colombian snow. He packs it in perfect lines on his coffee table and then takes a big whiff to smell the high quality aroma of the snow.”
The sweaters were easy to snicker about and likely appealed to a subset of the population — “for Santa to pull off a global toy delivery in a matter of hours, he’d have to be on something more powerful than imagination, wouldn’t he? “— but it underscores the growing difficulty for online retails to to keep pace enforcing their own policies amid the growing number of vendors and sales.
Not all products that have slipped past those who are vetting third-party online vendors are easily laughed off. Earlier this holiday season, the online retailer Amazon removed Auschwitz-themed Christmas ornaments from its website.
Walmart touts its Marketplace as an online portal for “select sellers” and says it “promotes a professional community and experience.” Walmart didn’t say how FUN Wear came to be approved in a statement first reported by The Global News, a Canadian news organization, but it said the cocaine Santa sweaters “have no place on our website.”
“We have removed these products from our marketplace,” Walmart continued. “We apologize for any unintended offence this may have caused.”
In the case of Amazon, it’s not clear how long the Auschwitz-themed holiday ornaments were on the website before they sparked outrage. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum asked Amazon to remove the products, which were already among items “related to human tragedies” that were prohibited under its policy on offensive and controversial materials.
“Selling ‘Christmas ornaments’ with images of Auschwitz does not seem appropriate. Auschwitz on a bottle opener is rather disturbing and disrespectful,” the museum tweeted.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblat told The New York Times it’s “hard to fathom why anyone would want to hang a Christmas ornament adorned with images of a concentration camp.”
“These ornaments are deeply offensive by any measure,” he said. “We’re relieved that Amazon has removed these items from sale.”
Both Walmart and Amazon have previously been called out for not closely monitoring what their vendors are selling.
The drug-themed sweaters never made it to the U.S. marketplace. However, in 2017, Walmart apologized for an item, offered by a third-party seller, available in a color of brown that referenced a racial slur.
“We are very sorry and appalled that this third-party seller listed their item with this description on our online marketplace,” Danit Marquardt, director of corporate communications for Walmart, said in a statement at the time. “It is a clear violation of our policy, and has been removed, and we are investigating the seller to determine how this could have happened.”
Last year, the Partnership for Working Families and the Action Center on Race and the Economy issued a report that said Amazon has policies prohibiting hateful or offensive merchandise, but criticized them as “weak and inadequately enforced,” allowing hate groups to “generate revenue, propagate their ideas and grow their movements.”
Among other items cited in the report were baby onesies that featured burning crosses, costumes depicting marks around the neck left by a noose, and e-books from organizations labeled “hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In response, Amazon said it would no longer allow third-party vendors to use its platform to sell products that featured Nazi or white nationalism symbolism.
Former Amazon employee Chris McCabe, the founder of a company called ecommerceChris that consults with marketplace sellers, told The Times that the large volume of items sold by third-party sellers — about half of all products available on the site — hampers Amazon’s enforcement of its policies.
Algorithms trawl for content that may be offensive, but humans make the final call, he said.
“I have no doubt that these weren’t flagged,” McCabe said to The Times about the ornaments depicting the Nazi concentration camp. “I don’t think it is, for example, a technical error. I think they were flagged. They just weren’t reviewed in a timely manner.”