Getting personal

WARNING: This column contains no references to the WTO. (Down, disappointed readers!)

Every year about this time, we shed the skin of 11 months of personalized-portal prattle and step into a fresh personalized shopping site. Last year the perpetrator was Mattel, which introduced the My Design (name-it-anything-but) Barbie site (, at which you can create your very own looks-like-you companion to the Plastic Princess. This year Nike steps up with NIKEiD (, whereby you can Be Like Mike and Mia with your very own custom-created pair of Nike sneakers.

I was amused by the not-Barbie site, mainly because tweaking her skin color and wardrobe still makes Barbie look no more like me than Mae West looks like kd lang. Where's the Barbie who's frizzy-haired or freckly or flat as a fritter? And if she happens to turn up (A-Cup Barbie: she can sleep on her stomach! Ken sold very separately), is that a good thing? How completely should a child be able to identify with a piece of jointed plastic? Is My Design simply a plot to give little girls psychological scars when they end up feeding Not-Barbie to the dog or giving her a bad haircut, which generations of women know is actually fatal to Barbie? (If you think I'm wrong, check the graveyard in your daughter's toy box.)

But I digress; let's talk sneakers. Last week Nike, that well-known licensee of celebrity vibes, zagged on the big endorsement thing. Enough of Mia and Mike—the newest cool shoe is Air You.

The program is called NIKEiD, and the idea is that you choose a shoe style and customize it with colors and an ID plate—up to eight characters—on the tab in the back where kids used to write stuff in ballpoint pen before sneakers started costing $100 a pop.

Nike would like you to be thinking about color-coordinated track team outfits right about now. However, Nike had to think about a lot of other stuff first—trademark violations, naughty words, gangbangers, and hate speech—and tailor NIKEiD accordingly. Seriously, they did. Nike isn't first to try their hand at selling personalized products online, but they may be the first to confront an interesting legal-slash-moral-slash-public image question: In the age of personalization, how does a company step up to the gap between what they claim to be selling and what we think we're buying?

I'm not talking about warranties and truth in advertising. I'm talking about image and the culture at large. Previously, companies could argue that they bore no liability for popular images of their products. Kids getting shot for their sneakers? Not the fault of the shoe companies. SUVs causing high traffic fatalities because the suburban housewives behind the wheel generally can't handle 'em? Not Ford or GMC's fault; they sell those things for off-road driving, don't you know. You get the picture, and you can fill in the brands and the excuses.

Previously, companies argued that they didn't have a lot of information about specific customers, so any misuse of the product wasn't their problem. (Social activists argue that advertising to demographics known to abuse a product implies both knowledge and responsibility, but just because that's a compelling moral argument doesn't mean it's got legal force.) Lack of information's a much harder argument for Nike to make when buyers can spec their shoes online. So Nike got on the horn with people like the Portland PD's anti-gang unit, and now if you want to write nastiness on your shoes you'll have to do it yourself.

Check it out. On the NIKEiD site, try typing in an obscenity for your ID plate. The ordering system won't accept it. Try typing in "Reebok." Nope ("r33bok" works though). Try "AB." Not allowed—"AB" can signify "Aryan Brotherhood." And what does "AG" signify? I'm not sure, but that's not allowed either.

The nice folks at Nike tell me that NIKEiD could expand in all directions, offering various widths, different materials, split-sized pairs for those of us with one foot smaller than the other, and so on—much more appealing than wading through the selection at PayFootLessLocker. Far more interesting, though, are the limits online merchants will feel the need or responsibility to set on your ability to personalize their wares.

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