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Column: My gift to businesses: How not to be racist, insensitive and reckless

Black Friday shoppers at the Glendale Galleria
Black Friday shoppers at the Glendale Galleria in November 2018.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

It’s Black Friday, holiday shopping once again has transformed into a Darwinian struggle, and as a public service, I’m here with a helpful suggestion for business leaders.

It’s time for all large companies to create a new position: vice president of you-can’t-be-serious.

All ideas for new products and marketing campaigns would be vetted by the vice president of you-can’t-be-serious, who would be empowered to tell colleagues, “You can’t be serious.”

For example, luxury fashion house Loewe decided to offer a striped ensemble that closely resembled a Holocaust concentration-camp uniform. The company apologized last week “to anyone who might feel we were insensitive to sacred memories” and removed the product from its website.

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Face warmer, reminiscent of blackface
A model wears a creation as part of the Gucci women’s Fall/Winter 2018-2019 collection, presented during the Milan Fashion Week. Gucci, which designed this face warmer, reminiscent of blackface prompted an instant backlash from the public and forced the company to apologize publicly.
(Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

Earlier this year, Gucci introduced (and subsequently pulled) a sweater year that resembled minstrel-show blackface.

Before these astonishingly stupid blunders made their way to store shelves, a vice president of you-can’t-be-serious at each company would have told colleagues, “You can’t be serious.”

That, in turn, could have prevented costly recalls and public-relations disasters.

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I’ve been mulling this idea for a while. It returned to mind the other day when World Against Toys Causing Harm, a.k.a. Watch, a consumer safety group, released its annual list of dangerous toys.

The list includes Hasbro’s $53.99 Nerf Ultra One gun, which can fire foam Nerf darts up to 120 feet. “The darts provided can shoot with enough force to potentially cause eye injuries,” Watch says.

There’s also the $14.99 Spike the Fine Motor Hedgehog from Learning Resources, which Watch says is for kids as young as 18 months and includes “12 removable, rigid-plastic ‘quills’ measuring approximately 3.5 inches long” that pose a choking hazard.

Let’s not overlook the $8.99 Nickelodeon Frozen Treat Slime from LaRose Industries, which Watch notes appears to come in flavors such as “mint chocolate chip,” “berry smoothie” and “soft serve.” Yet the package says “harmful chemicals” are present and warns: “Not real food — do not eat.”

And my personal favorite: the $19.99 Power Rangers Beast Morphers Electronic Cheetah Claw, also from Hasbro. Small children are encouraged to “take on enemies” with retractable plastic claws designed “for slashing action.” Yet Hasbro’s website says kids shouldn’t “swing or jab at people or animals.”

It’s no secret that kids like playing with dangerous objects. Is there a kid alive who wouldn’t love receiving a set of lawn darts for the holidays?

But that doesn’t mean responsible parents should give such things to their young ones — or that responsible companies should make them available.

I can state with absolute confidence that if I served as Hasbro’s vice president of you-can’t-be-serious, and the company’s designers approached me with plans for a wearable claw that offers “slashing action” for kids as young as 5, I’d say without hesitation, “You can’t be serious.”

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The Toy Assn., an industry group, issued a statement dismissing Watch’s worries.

“By law, all toys sold in the United States must meet 100-plus rigorous safety tests and standards,” the group said. “On the other hand, Watch does not test the toys in its report to check their safety; their allegations appear to be based on their misrepresentation or misunderstanding of the mandatory toy standards.”

Watch says it relies on common sense in issuing its warnings, which may not be scientific but strikes this parent, who is no stranger to toy purchases, as a reasonable approach.

Times change. When I was a kid, I had a toy called Creepy Crawlers from Mattel. It consisted of a handful of metal molds of insects into which I’d pour “Plastigoop.”

What made Creepy Crawlers (a.k.a. Thingmaker) both totally cool and incredibly unsafe was that the kit included a hot plate you’d use to cook the Plastigoop and create your rubbery little bugs.

The fact that I never burned myself or destroyed our house speaks more to dumb luck than good design.

Apparently, Mattel’s lawyers didn’t bat an eye in the 1960s when the company sold kids an exposed hot plate. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine any such toy passing legal muster.

Instead we have plastic claws that offer hours of good, clean fun — as long as you don’t “swing or jab at people or animals.” Maybe a warning such as that from the manufacturer provides safe harbor from lawsuits, but, I mean, really?

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You can’t be serious.

In fact, the beauty of a vice president of you-can’t-be-serious is that the job basically pays for itself. Those four words can save millions in legal and PR costs.

Remember a couple of years ago when Pepsi thought it was a good idea to feature Kendall Jenner in a commercial that appeared to be using the Black Lives Matter movement as an excuse to sell soda pop?

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said after pulling the ad a day after its debut. “Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize.”

It was reported that this spectacularly bad TV spot cost Pepsi $2 million to produce.

The company’s vice president of you-can’t-be-serious could have put that money to much better use.

That’s my Black Friday present to you, corporate America.

You’re welcome.


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