You’re a copywriter, and your eyes are glazing at the thought of writing yet another mundane description of a pair of gloves or a basic solid-colored t-shirt or a simple dress. You’re tired of describing the garment’s color as “grey” and are racking your brain to try and come up with a different shade to use. Slate? Stone? Stormy? Hmm, what about animals? Animals can be grey, and who doesn’t like animals? How about dolphin grey…wait, that’s a bit played out. Dolphins are too mainstream. Dolphins have been done to death. What’s similar to a dolphin in color but less popular? Your ‘Eureka’ moment strikes. A manatee! The cows of the sea! Fantastic, ‘manatee grey’ it is. But you don’t want to use that color for every product description — just sneak it into a few write ups for diversity’s sake. Okay, aaaaaaand done. You’ve sent the copy off to the dev team and begin working on coming up with 15 different ways to describe something red…

…until a less-than-pleased customer unhappily notices that your description of a “manatee grey” garment was paired not-so-appropriately with a plus-sized basic dress. And that its non-plus-sized counterpart isn’t also “manatee grey,” it’s just “dark heather gray.” And this less-than-pleased customer takes a screenshot of the two items and tweets it out to the masses. Now your efforts to spruce up some mundane copy are being noticed, but not for the reasons you hoped.

It’s a funny, Seinfeld-esque scenario, but this actually happened to Target recently. Check out the tweet:

And the product comparison:


Target was quick to apologize, saying they didn’t mean to offend any shoppers with the color description. It may very well have been an accident — the retail chain sells various products in “manatee grey,” not just plus-sized garments. Or it may have been the result of an immature web employee taking a crack at Target’s larger-sized clientele.

Let’s give Target the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an accident. Maybe the copywriter was just trying to spruce up a drab, boring product color. I remember watching an episode of Inside Edition where a cafeteria discovered it sold more soup when it renamed each batch to sound homier (e.g., “beef stew” was re-written to “Grandma’s Hearty Beef Stew,” and “chicken soup” became “Homestyle Chunky Chicken Soup”). Copy matters, and the more interestingly you can describe something, the better chance it has to attract someone’s attention.

Is it silly to get offended over a plus-sized dress that’s “manatee grey”? I think so, yes. But I’m not the type of person who buys plus-sized clothing, so I can’t relate to how that kind of customer would respond or react upon seeing a garment designed for them named after a chubby aquatic mammal. Maybe some women would laugh it off, but others might think they’re being made fun of, and we all know a person’s weight is a sensitive subject.

When you’re writing website or product copy, you’re tasked with trying to be witty or creative or inspiring or interesting in a way that’s engaging and makes you stand out amongst the competition. But you must also be mindful of how your copy is interpreted and whether it could possibly be misinterpreted. Are you overlooking a segment of users who may take offense to something on your website? Maybe your 404 page is cleverly designed and says “Oh noes, this page has gone retarded!”, but you didn’t think about users who are sensitive to the word “retarded” and would be offended if they saw you using the term so carelessly. Maybe you dropped a few swear words on your site before realizing your user base is more conservative than you thought. And maybe you described a dress as being “manatee grey” without thinking about how your plus-sized customers would react.

Before you sign off on that creative copy, try to run through a quick quality control checklist. You don’t have to scrutinize every single word, but train your staff to look for typos, sentence structure, readability, all the usual low-hanging fruit, and also try to approach the copy from an objective point of view. How will your different customers interpret this? Will they laugh? Will some find it offensive? Will they be confused?

I’m not saying Target’s “manatee grey” snafu could have been avoided had someone checked every single product copy. With as many products as they carry, they might just use code to randomly replace certain products’ “dark heather grey” color description with “manatee grey” for diversity’s sake. But as silly as this case study is, it is a good reminder to your company’s content creators to really think about the impact your content can have on your users. Because in the end, it’s better to be safe than sorry.