It wasn't long after the September 11 attacks that the vultures descended on our collective grief, exploiting tragedy to make a quick buck selling commemorative items like Bin Laden dartboards and Twin Towers rugs. Since 2001, thanks to the rise in internet shopping and on-demand printing, anyone with a computer and a couple hundred bucks can turn themselves into a grief entrepreneur.
In January 2015, following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine, Joachim Roncin's slogan "Je Suis Charlie" was reproduced on every item imaginable, including hoodies. Roncin said he was "horrified" at the attempts to commercialize his slogan. The French Institute of Industrial Property has since clarified that it has rejected all requests to trademark "Je Suis Charlie."
On the night of the November 13, French illustrator Jean Jullien posted a drawing he'd just made of the Eiffel Tower as part of the peace symbol. The design, as he explained to WIRED, was intended to convey a message of peace and solidarity—he was not looking to benefit from it in any way. However, this didn't stop several online retailers like Zazzle from printing his creation on iPhone cases, T-shirts, and badges. The same goes for sellers on Etsy, where you can order a matching set of pendant and earrings of the same design. While some websites claim that a part (or sometimes all) of the profit will be donated to victims' associations or organizations such as the Red Cross, it's hard to verify such promises.
Earlier this week, we contacted Zazzle to ask whether they would consider removing the items on sale so as not to take advantage of the attacks. "Many designers whose works Zazzle offers show support for the French during this difficult time. As the drawings follow our guidelines, Zazzle will continue to allow the sale of products on our websites," they responded.
CNN got a similar reply when they approached vendors of the "Je Suis Charlie" T-shirts in January, asking whether they thought what they were doing was a bit "insensitive." Most of the sellers, according to the report, said some equivalent of, "It's an important message that needs to get out. And if we don't sell it, someone else will."
And it's not just about the merchandise created specifically after the event. Even ads for Etsy items as innocuous as "Peace" bunting were cynically renamed "Pray for Paris Peace Bunting" with a callousness more typical of SEO optimizers than home crafters. There was even a special weekend promotion on a "All lives count. Except ISIS. Fuck them" T-shirt; it was 20 percent off if you used the discount code SOLIDARITY.
Props to the randomly named Pray For Paris clothes shop though, which opened in 2011. Owners decided to stop all sales on November 14 in the wake of the events and now 20 percent of its profits will be donated to the Red Cross.
In a press release issued on Monday, eBay announced its aim to donate "5 percent of the revenue made on its European marketplaces on November 14 and 15 to victims and their families." A cynic could argue that this might be an attempt for eBay to distance themselves from sellers profiteering from the tragedy. But a spokesman for the company said that measures had been taken to "ensure the absence of inappropriate or illegal ads seeking to glorify or to profit from this tragedy."
Amazon.fr told VICE France that since Saturday morning the site has aimed to "prevent exploitation of tragic events in Paris (caused) by selling derivative items on its Marketplace. If necessary, Amazon has removed all products from third-party merchants that have been identified as such." So far, no such sellers have been identified.
But there has been one positive piece of news: This morning, VICE France received an email from Zazzle. "Following negative comments we received on the products conceived by the Zazzle community, we decided to withdraw the products linked to the tragedy. [...] This operation can take up to 48 hours." Public opinion, it seems, can have an impact—even on the grief capitalists.
[Update 11/19: Nine Line Apparel donates a portion of their proceeds to help veterans and their families]