A few weeks back, my father-in-law was looking for a trespassing sign. Their house has a dock and people had snuck onto it at 1 a.m., clearly imbibing. Late night, no light, alcohol, and open water is never a good idea. He wasn’t mad, but a sign to keep people safe seemed prudent.
So we went to Etsy to find a sign. It seemed like the natural choice, since it’s a site best known for crafts and customizable home products.
But the oddest thing happened when you searched the word “trespassing” on Etsy, which feels like the natural place to look for that sort of thing. Lots of the signs high up in the search rankings were strange, word salad, anti-vax signs. They were impossible to ignore or miss. They were everywhere.
Here’s a sample of what we saw.
A bit of background on me: I just got married, which means recently I’ve spent a significant amount of time trawling Etsy for wedding-related products. It’s a relatively wholesome place on the internet, as far as places on the internet go. You’re likely to find table centerpieces, hand-knit blankets, all sorts of acrylic crafts, candles — that sort of thing. It’s the center of the crafting universe online. So it was whiplash-inducing to see a corner of Etsy so different than the wares of the Wedding Industrial Complex.
It’s not that Etsy’s anti-vax problem is wildly awful — unfortunately anti-vax sentiments feel unavoidable online these days — it’s that it’s so…strange. And it’s quite weird to get flooded with these results when searching things like “trespass.” Etsy is a place you expect neutral, harmless home products and not get your vaccine out of my face nonsense. It’s disorienting to come across these products so suddenly.
Certain search terms will trigger anti-vax results. For instance, here were a few items that hit my results when I searched an obvious word: “vaccine.”
The QR code is a middle finger, in case you cannot tell.
Credit: screenshot: etsy
Searching for vaccine bumper stickers on Etsy gets you a similar mix of pro and anti messages.
A weird array of vax bumper stickers on Etsy.
Credit: screenshot: Etsy
The items are odd and angry at no one in particular. The anti-vax sellers push items clearly couched in right-wing grievance culture. People who are afraid some scary, non-existent person from the government is going to come and force a jab in them.
The customer base are the folks perennially whining about being treaded on by on thing or another. One seller of anti-vax items, for example, also sold decals about being put in Facebook jail and items that display remarks about the vaccine that are thinly veiled anti-trans commentary.
“Repeat offender” is, apparently, a thing to be proud about.
Credit: screenshot: etsy
Or look at this seller below, which had a combo of anti-vax merch and items focusing on the Cleveland MLB team, which is changing its name to the Guardians because its mascot was offensive to Native Americans. Again: grievance culture.
Yes, that is a Cuomo joke sticker.
Credit: screenshot: Etsy
The anti-vax items exist on Etsy for a simple reason: there’s a market for them. Etsy functions as a platform for sellers, who get access to the site’s customer base and tools for their products. Usually those products are things like wood working, candles, stenciling, and bath bombs. But selling online means scrapping to get sales and, despite the stunning evidence that vaccines are an amazingly good thing, there are customers who want signs to fend off imagined people who are going to make them get a life-saving shot.
For instance, I DM’d one Etsy seller who sold an anti-vax sign that actually seemed entirely out of place in their shop, which was largely filled with table centerpieces, ornaments, and cake toppers.
“Like 99% of my products they are a request from a customer that I create then list,” the seller, whose Etsy page said they sold out of Phoenix, Arizona, told me over DM. “I do not put my personal feelings about politics into any of my creations. I do not state anywhere whether I am for the shot or not. This sign was created because I had received several requests to create it.”
The sign’s listing had a little, automated “best seller” label on it. This seller saw demand and filled it. For better or worse.
“People exploit uncertainty,” said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. “Where there’s a mechanism [for] an economic gain…people will figure it out.”
The opening for anti-vax profit on Etsy is relatively small but still there. The anti-vaccine items on Etsy manage to just skirt by the rules laid out by the site.
And Etsy spokesperson told Mashable that anti-vaccine items are banned by the company, under rules that prohibit harmful misinformation.
But the trespassing signs, or middle-finger-not vaccinated decals, might not be banned because they aren’t deemed to cause real-world harm. So if an item is anti-vax but doesn’t spread misinformation about the vaccine, or actively tell people not to get vaccinated, then it seems likely to remain up on Etsy. It’s an area open to interpretation.
And, to be fair, it is unfortunately hard to imagine creating rules that would keep all anti-vax items off a site. A June poll found 13 percent of Americans would “definitely not” get the vaccine, despite more than 625,000 COVID deaths in the United States alone. Thirteen percent of U.S. adults is roughly 27 million people. That’s a big customer base for online sellers to target. But it’s also just niche enough to land buyers. There are so many candle sellers on Etsy that it would likely prove tough to cut through the competition. But you might stand out by selling an anti-vax sign.
Etsy isn’t alone. Zazzle, which lets you customize items, has anti-vax items as well. Or search for “vaccine merch” on Amazon and be greeted by a weird mix of t-shirts.
The world of online anti-vax stuff is strange and vast.
A small sample of anti-vax shirts on Zazzle.
Credit: Screenshot: Zazzle
Vaccine merch is strange on Amazon, too.
Credit: screenshot: amazon
But think of all the free marketing that’s out there for anti-vax merch. Famous politicians and majors news channels are peddling vaccine hesitancy. That’s effectively wrangling up customers for sellers make cheap anti-vax merch.
“[The sellers] know the right sort of communication, they know the right messaging, they know the right slogans that will engage [customers], activate them and encourage them to pull out their checkbook,” Lightman said.
Sites like Amazon, Zazzle, and especially Etsy rely on sellers running their own shops. The site is just a platform, not the curator. That has always opened the door for less than stellar items being sold. I remember covering a 2019 story on a form of bleach being sold as a miracle cure for cancer and HIV — at the time, it was listed on Walmart’s site from what appeared to be a third-party seller. We’re all well aware of the issues platforms have — think of Facebook and disinformation, for instance. Etsy has that issue, too, if on a smaller and stranger scale.
“This is a very nebulous domain,” Lightman said. “If I market a bumper sticker that said, ‘Stand up to your individual rights, choose not to be vaccinated.’ Is that hate speech? Is that racially tinged? No, it’s just opinionated.”
It all sounds an awful lot like the debates we have constantly about websites, but it’s made far more strange by it being centered on a site at the center of the crafting universe.
Think about how odd it is to get served a bunch of anti-vax items when you search for trespassing signs. The search had nothing to do with vaccines at all. The anti-vax signs were seemingly just very popular. It’s a discomfiting creeping of the polarized political world into a relatively harmless world of home crafts — and it was entirely unavoidable, the search results reproduced by a few different folks that queried the same thing on Etsy.
That said, it’s not entirely shocking anti-vax merch its way to Etsy. If there is a dollar to be squeezed out of people, well, then someone is going to wring that buck out of folks. Even if its through selling truly weird yard signs warding off vaccine door knockers. The internet is nothing if not comprehensive, and I do not mean that as a compliment.
Anyway, after some searching, my father-in-law finally got a sign kindly asking drunk people to stay off the dock. It doesn’t say anything about vaccines.