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If you haven't noticed, the world is yours. Personalization and customization are all the rage these days, with services allowing you to tailor your news to your narrow interests (MyYahoo!), create your own television network (TiVO), even select the gender of your next child (via reproductive technology).

Nike's iD product
Nike's new iD product allows consumers to customize their shoes.
All poor Jonah Peretti wanted was a pair of customized sneakers. But here's what happened when the MIT grad student tried to take Nike up on its offer to stitch the term of his choice -- "Sweatshop" -- onto a pair of "Personal iD" shoes that the company markets online:

    From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
    To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"
    Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

    Your NIKE iD order was cancelled for one or more of the following reasons.

    1) Your Personal iD contains another party's trademark or other intellectual property.
    2) Your Personal iD contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use.
    3) Your Personal iD was left blank. Did you not want any personalization?
    4) Your Personal iD contains profanity or inappropriate slang, and besides, your mother would slap us.

    If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com

    Thank you,
    NIKE iD


    From: "Jonah H. Peretti"
    To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
    Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

    Greetings,

    My order was canceled, but my personal NIKE iD does not violate any of the criteria outlined in your message. The Personal iD on my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes was the word "sweatshop."

    Sweatshop is not: 1) another's party's trademark, 2) the name of an athlete, 3) blank, or 4) profanity. I choose the iD because I wanted to remember the toil and labor of the children who made my shoes. Could you please ship them to me immediately.

    Thanks and Happy New Year,
    Jonah Peretti


    From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
    To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"
    Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

    Dear NIKE iD Customer,

    Your NIKE iD order was cancelled because the iD you have chosen contains, as stated in the previous e-mail correspondence, "inappropriate slang".

    If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com

    Thank you,
    NIKE iD


    From: "Jonah H. Peretti"
    To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
    Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

    Dear NIKE iD,

    Thank you for your quick response to my inquiry about my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes. Although I commend you for your prompt customer service, I disagree with the claim that my personal iD was inappropriate slang. After consulting Webster's Dictionary, I discovered that "sweatshop" is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. The word means: "a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions," and its origin dates from 1892. So my personal iD does meet the criteria detailed in your first e-mail.

    Your website advertises that the NIKE iD program is "about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are." I share Nike's love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that "If you want it done right ... build it yourself." I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision. I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order.

    Thank you,
    Jonah Peretti


    From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
    To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"
    Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

    Dear NIKE iD Customer,

    Regarding the rules for personalization it also states on the NIKE iD website that "Nike reserves the right to cancel any Personal iD up to 24 hours after it has been submitted".

    In addition it further explains:

    "While we honor most personal iDs, we cannot honor every one. Some may be (or contain) others' trademarks, or the names of certain professional sports teams, athletes or celebrities that Nike does not have the right to use. Others may contain material that we consider inappropriate or simply do not want to place on our products.

    Unfortunately, at times this obliges us to decline personal iDs that may otherwise seem unobjectionable. In any event, we will let you know if we decline your personal iD, and we will offer you the chance to submit another."

    With these rules in mind we cannot accept your order as submitted.

    If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com

    Thank you,
    NIKE iD


    From: "Jonah H. Peretti"
    To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"
    Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

    Dear NIKE iD,

    Thank you for the time and energy you have spent on my request. I have decided to order the shoes with a different iD, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?

    Thanks,
    Jonah Peretti

Peretti received no response to that last message. But the virtual sparring didn't end there.

He sent the e-mail chain to 10 friends, who forwarded it to 10 more friends, and so on, until the exchange became something of an Internet legend over the past several weeks, transforming Peretti -- who had never protested against Nike and swears he was just goofing with the company's lofty marketing rhetoric -- into a hero of anti-Nike crusaders. (Peretti and Nike both confirmed to ESPN.com that the exchange in fact happened).

After the dialogue appeared on several websites around the world, Peretti got an impassioned message from a Hotmail account holder objecting to his "rather worthless" opinion. The user, who identified himself only by his e-mail address -- efalk21@hotmail.com -- and warned Peretti not to confuse him as a "Nike apologist or the like," carbon-copied the letter to Salon.com, among other websites.

MIT grad students ain't dumb. A colleague in the MIT Media Lab, where Peretti works, looked up the IP address in the header of the message and found that it was sent from a computer at ... you guessed it: Nike.

Erik Falkenberg, the Nike employee, declined comment to ESPN.com except to say that he was not acting on behalf of the company when he sent the note. Nike.com spokeswoman Beth Gorny said she wishes Falkenberg would have kept his opinion to himself but "he's seen what we've seen (in the sweatshop protests), and he's fed up with it."

But Nike can complain and Peretti can only celebrate so loudly. Peretti's well-distributed e-mail chain, it turns out, has taught the company valuable lesson in what experts call "viral" marketing, which thrives in an e-mail environment.

"This has sparked a lot of interest in the iD" product, Gorny said. "Sales are up."

With advertising like this, who needs Vince Carter?

Tom Farrey is Senior Writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at tom.farrey@espn.com



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