Jake, the broad-smiling, barefoot, stick-figure character that Life is Good has made its icon and trademark since 1994, is apparently not as carefree as one might surmise. Though you'll never see his visage frowning on a T-shirt, Life is Good has recently taken a stance with two outdoor retailers, Summit Hut in Arizona and Champaign Surplus in Illinois, that doesn't seem to be so fun-loving: You can't carry Life is Good if you're carrying the Life is Crap brand.
"Life is Crap was a fraction of the business of Life is Good, a small fraction," Dave Baker, owner of The Summit Hut, told SNEWS®. "We thought Life is Crap is kind of funny and irreverent. We did not believe that Life is Crap was doing anything illegal and never received communication from anyone that there was anything illegal going on and had we, we would have taken that very seriously.
"Instead, we received a call from a representative who began questioning our morality and ethics, and demanded we stop selling Life is Crap. They brought up the charities and stuff they support, and what a high mountain they were looking down upon us from, and the more I listened, the more insulted and angry I got," said Baker.
"I think they are taking themselves far too seriously," added Baker. "In some ways, they were asking if I met their high standards of morality, and when I looked into my soul, I could see I did not, so dropping the Life is Good line was remarkably easy."
When Ira and Lynn Wachtel of Champaign Surplus heard Baker's story, they felt bad, but they told us they weren't planning to take a stance. That changed, though, when they said they too received similar treatment from their rep, Nancy Kluesner.
Lynn Wachtel told SNEWS that she called Kluesner to set up an Outdoor Retailer appointment and Kluesner asked her if they still carried Life is Crap. She told them she did, and was told by Kluesner that Champaign could no longer carry the Life is Good brand.
Shawn White, one of six owners of the Life is Good brand (founders Bert and John Jacobs retain 80-percent ownership), responded to a SNEWS request for an interview and told us that the company's stance was by no means new. He said the company has had the following policy regarding doing business with its retail partners for a number of years now:
"The Life is Good company uses all the resources available to spread optimism around the world. We consider our retailer customers as critical partners in spreading that optimism. In that spirit, we will exercise our choice to not do business with those retailers carrying negative or knock off brands of Life is Good."
While Ira Wachtel said he does not dispute Life is Good's right to choose its retail partners, he was surprised to hear of the above policy.
"I brought the Life is Crap line into our store two years ago because I thought it was funny. And I remember sharing that I had opened them up while I was in the Life is Good booth two years ago, with Lynn (Wachtel) and Nancy (Kluesner), and it was clear then that Nancy was not pleased," said Ira Wachtel. "But if there was a company policy, wouldn't that have been a good time to bring it up?"
Both Ira and Lynn Wachtel told SNEWS that the conversation with Kluesner did not go well, and that they were offended in the way the message was delivered.
"If Life is Good had come to us with the following message, that we believe our intellectual property has been stolen and it bothers us and we would prefer our customers not do business with a company we believe has stolen our art and image, we would have done that," said Ira Wachtel. "Instead, they come off lecturing to us that if we sell something that they somehow construe as a negative message, you are somehow negative and not an ethical person. My wife, Lynn, is a cancer survivor who wakes up with a smile every day and is grateful for every day, and to have it implied she is somehow not a good person or that our ethics are to be questioned is truly offensive."
White shared an email he said had been sent to him by Kluesner regarding her conversation with Lynn Wachtel, which stated in part, "I totally used John Banse's (Ed. note: Banse is the legal counsel for Life is Good) list of comments to use. I didn't really get to say much. I had been aware that they tried Life is Crap, and she was calling to set up a show appointment for OR. I asked if she was continuing with Life is Crap, said I was disappointed that she was going to keep selling it, and while she said she thought it was a funny line, I went on to discuss their negative slant to our brand, confusing our customers (who think it's Life is Good), and that their line tarnishes our brand image to the public. I said that it is the policy of Life is Good to not sell to customers who carry negative, knockoff brands."
The email further stated, "I just tried to stay to the Banse script, talked politely, and just restated our policy, offering that I hoped she'd see the importance of spreading optimism rather than negativity...."
Lynn Wachtel told SNEWS that as a small retailer, Champaign Surplus has worked hard to help build the Life is Good brand and that she's very disappointed.
"In the end, our disagreement with Life is Good is about the way Life is Good delivered their message. They gave us an ultimatum and commented about our lack of integrity. Their patronizing words and strong arm tactics were really not good," said Lynn Wachtel. "It is really too bad, and a lot of ado about nothing."
Other retailers SNEWS spoke with, including those who are strong Life is Good supporters, said they also feel Life is Good might have gone too far.
"I am a Life is Good supporter and do a big business with them, and it has been great for us, but I don't think they should attack their retailers who decide to carry another line they might not agree with in terms of message," said Bobby McCain, owner of Buffalo Peak Outfitters in Mississippi. "I personally choose not to carry Life is Crap, but for someone who does and whose market is different, unless the product is infringing on patents or trademarks, then don't get mad at the retailers.
"I think Life is Good would be better off to try to have some fun with this thing or spin it back in their favor," McCain added. "If you cut off a retailer, then you just push them toward a brand like Life is Crap, and what's good about that for Life is Good or its message?"
Ira Wachtel emailed the following to fellow members of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, an industry buying group, and shared it with SNEWS: "We have now joined Summit Hut among the 'tribe of the vanquished.' Life is Good has joined a short list of companies with whom we will no longer do business because of those company's business practices."
For Bert Jacobs, "chief executive optimist" and co-founder of Life is Good, hearing a retailer will no longer do business with his company isn't what he told SNEWS is so bothersome: "If we don't line up on philosophy and strategy, then we don't line up. Let's both move on. No hard feelings and no judgment passed."
What he said does bother him is the manner of communication his team has with anyone, including those with whom Life is Good might decide it can no longer do business with.
"If anyone was spoken to in the wrong way, then I personally would like to apologize to them. That was never and will never be our intention," Jacobs said.
In explaining the decision to no longer sell to retailers, even good ones, with whom the company feels are no longer a good match, Jacobs said, "This is not a question of legalities or ethics. This is simply a business decision. We decided that we do not want Life is Good products sold at stores that are also merchandising negative messages. Of course, there are going to be retailers who don't like that policy, but that is our decision. It might cost us some business, but we believe in what we're doing."
He added, "It is still our silly little dream, and we believe in what we are doing, and that is whatever you focus on in the world will grow. And if you want to focus on what is right with the world, that will grow. That has been a central component with our business philosophy."
SNEWS® View: This is not a good PR moment for Life is Good, and if Jake could frown, we bet it would be with furrowed brow. Somewhere, somehow, the message Bert Jacobs espouses and eloquently expressed on the phone to us -- from his parent's house late Friday evening in between setting up for an 85th birthday party -- is getting lost as it is passed down the line. And that is something Life is Good needs to solve, quickly. Life is Good is Jake, and Jake's message is expressed best, it seems, by the Jacobs brothers.
If there is any doubt at all about Life is Crap being a parody of Life is Good, gaze on the two images to the right. Two stick figures, two stick dogs. One is a happy image; the other is, well, funny in a sick sort of way, which is the embodiment of Life is Crap. Now, whether or not this is a direct rip-off and infringement on Life is Good's brand and intellectual property, that's for lawyers to decide. To date, all we've heard from both Life is Good and Life is Crap is that they've "talked."
All this "crap" aside, Life is Good is going to be the subject of satire and parody because it is so successful. The more successful it becomes, the greater the opportunity for parody. That is the nature of humor. And what one person finds humorous, another might find offensive. That is the nature of humor, too.
One can argue knockoff, rip-off, appropriate or inappropriate satire, customer confusion, brand tarnishing, whatever, but those are legal issues, not ethical or philosophical ones. We don't believe anyone would question Life is Good's right to defend its trademarks and intellectual property. And, if that were the issue, then the company should clearly communicate the legal issues to its retailers and expect support to that end. We don't know of too many retailers who would tell a vendor to take a flying leap if the request was put that way.
But the issue on the table for debate -- after Life is Good decided Summit Hut and Champaign Surplus were not the right kind of stores for its brand -- is not a legal one, it is a philosophical one. Just what is good enough for Life is Good? It would be hard to argue that Champaign Surplus and Summit Hut are not good representatives and ambassadors of the Life is Good philosophy, as they are both pillars of their communities and strong supporters of more causes and issues of import to ensuring life IS good for all than we would even attempt to list here. We would argue that Life is Good is being, well, a bit short-sighted in these cases, but then, we would also argue that the company can and should be able to sell to whatever retailer it chooses for reasons of its own making.
Life is Good has no problem making quite a great deal of its roots, in fact, embracing them. Those roots include stories of Bert and John Jacobs sneaking into college cafeterias on the campuses where they were hawking shirts and stealing sandwiches to curb the hunger and dodging police in Boston where they were selling T-shirts on the street. And it's that historical and underlying message which creates a challenge for Life is Good -- how does it now go about conveying a message of choice for good without also sounding holier-than-thou in the process?
Somewhere, somehow, we suspect the messaging Life is Good is trying to convey now has been sanitized and stripped of its essence and passion via the legal channels -- even if the lawyer wears flip-flops and a Life is Good T-shirt to work. The message, and one that its icon Jake would embrace we suspect, should be one fully grounded in humor, humility, sensitivity, appreciation and acknowledgement for all the good that a retail partner is doing, even if that means the retail partner and Life is Good need to part ways.
It is hard to make an argument against good if it is couched the right way. We would hope and expect that the Life is Good team will learn from this, and make the necessary changes in the way all members of its community communicate.