The Polar-ized Life of the Cocaine Santa Sweater

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The sweater reads “Let it Snow”. A classic and lovely little expression of holiday spirit. A quick glance at this sweater and you could easily miss that Santa is featured embracing a “less traditional” approach to celebrating the holidays involving a white substance that’s not snow. This festive sweater was available on the Walmart website.

Walmart customers were not pleased about the Cocaine Santa sweater, as well as other variations featuring Santa pushing the bounds of decency, and in response, Walmart quickly removed the items and apologized for the offending items. Crisis averted, problem solved. As toxic as Cocaine Santa was for Walmart, he’s thriving over at Amazon.

Cocaine Santa is quite a hit over on Amazon. The same sweater design Walmart quickly dropped is available on Amazon in infinite variations. You can find Cocaine Santa on t-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, coffee mugs, translated into German and Spanish, or you can select an option where elves, reindeer, pandas, wolves, sheep or dinosaurs have stepped in for Santa to celebrate the season. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Amazon has removed offensive items in the past. Earlier this month Amazon removed a number of Christmas ornaments, bottle openers, mousepads and photographs that included a Nazi concentration camp. Thus far there doesn’t appear to be any Amazon customer outcry or movement by Amazon to remove the Let It Snow products. How is it possible that Amazon can feature an expansive selection of products that were highly inappropriate for Walmart without any blowback? ?

Amazon is no stranger to being under fire for controversial products ranging from toilet seat covers featuring Hindu gods’ to thousands of other banned or unsafe items. The Amazon response to each situation varies, but similar to the Let It Snow products, Amazon continues to be a home for many items that would be quickly removed from other sites. Same products, radioactive for one brand, not a problem for another brand. What gives?

For many, Amazon is as essential as running water, electricity or wi-fi. People get angry, annoyed, sometimes incensed at a host of Amazon practices; but, the convenience and utility of Amazon, especially for Amazon Prime customers, glosses-over most of their righteous indignation. “Sure I wish Amazon didn’t do X or did more of Y, but are you crazy, I can’t cancel my Prime subscription.”  There are those that feel strongly about where their values may diverge from Amazon who have chosen to part ways with company on principle, but many stay despite their inner conflict. The utility of Amazon, even for those who actively dislike some company practices, transcends their personal values.

Walmart, and others, often have a more fragile relationship with consumers. Where offended consumers may continue to stick with Amazon, they may not have the same commitment to other brands. Most brands don’t have the luxury of alienating customers in a significant way and still retaining them. In the case of Walmart, the Let It Snow products don’t seem aligned to the brand’s values so it makes perfect sense they would quickly remove the products from their site.

As marketing leaders what can we learn from this whole thing?

Relational strength provides latitude – Amazon can risk potentially offending consumers based on the strength of their relationships. This allows them to offer products that others can’t and provides greater forgiveness for mistakes and other controversies.

Values still matter – Walmart wisely removed the offending products in response to customer concerns. Staying attuned to customer values and taking quick corrective action demonstrates respect for your customers and commitment to your organizational values.

Even the benign can be dangerous – This time its Santa, next time it could be Cupid or the Easter Bunny. Sometimes things are clearly and overtly controversial, other times things can sneak up you. Don’t assume controversies will come from obvious places.

And, next time you’re looking to win that ugly holiday sweater party at the office, double-check the graphics so you’re not overly “festive”.