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It's Made of 100% Cotton; Its Sales Are 99% Ironic

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

Something strange happened this week in Amazon.com's apparel section.

For a day or two, a black T-shirt featuring an image of three wolves baying at a full moon claimed the top slot at the online store's clothing bestseller list,, beating out the usual, unremarkable mix of Levi's 505 regular-fit jeans, Crocs clogs and Adidas running shoes.

And really, why wouldn't you buy the shirt, which is priced from $7.65 to $17.93, depending on your size? Just read the long and growing list of customer testimonials promising earth-shattering experiences or psychedelic vision quests upon purchase.

"I bought this shirt and instantly old girlfriends started calling me again," wrote one reviewer.

"My doctor says the cancer has gone into remission," wrote another. "Thanks for changing my life!"

As retailers, media companies and even government agencies attempt to get with the times and connect with an online audience, every once in a while they get a reminder: Anybody, or any group, armed with a Web browser can anonymously game the system and manipulate the marketplace at sites inviting user feedback -- for profit or just for fun.

Hence the sudden and unexpected popularity of an old and not quite "in" T-shirt.

The shirt's page at Amazon.com had quietly existed for years without much comment, but after a snarky link from CollegeHumor.com, the "Three Wolf Moon" shirt suddenly sprouted hundreds of five-star ratings. Reviewers have dreamed up epics about its powers, weaving fantasies involving everything from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to the pop group Duran Duran.

As the joke caught on and got passed around the Web, Photoshopped spoofs of the shirt started appearing online -- featuring corgi puppies, spiders or haddock instead of the now-famous wolves.

CollegeHumor.com, a comedy site started in 1999 by a couple of high school friends who grew up together in Timonium, Md., also claimed victory this week for rigging an online poll run by the state of Nebraska to select a new license-plate design. The site urged its readers to vote for what it deemed the most boring design available to Nebraska drivers. That gray-and-white plate won.

Officials in Nebraska said they monitored Web traffic to screen out visitors coming directly from the humor site, but CollegeHumor.com was still, credibly, claiming the joke a success this week. "Together we pranked the entire automobile-owning population of Nebraska," wrote a CollegeHumor.com editor, in a Wednesday posting. "Congratulations."

This type of online rabble-rousing appears to be catching on more than ever over the past year, said Tim Hwang, the organizer of ROFLCon, a convention dedicated to celebrating Internet memes. After all, another Web-based prank crossed over into the real world just last month when a 21-year-old college student, known by the online moniker "m00t," sailed to the top of Time's "most influential person" list in an online poll, beating out the likes of President Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Gathering nearly 17 million votes, the world's "most influential" person is the founder of another jokey Web culture site, 4chan.org, whose proprietor is known offline by the name Christopher Poole.

If you don't get why the shirt, and its reviews, are so funny, don't worry. CollegeHumor.com co-founder Josh Abramson said it's a case where the shirt is so uncool that it's cool.

"A lot of things that become popular on the Web are based around just being ironic and being an inside joke," Abramson said. "This resonates with a geeky, hip crowd that is very Web-savvy. When something resonates with that circle, crazy things can happen."

Abramson said his team had considered licensing the wolf shirt for sale. CollegeHumor.com, which had 7 million unique Web visitors last month, also has an online store that sells T-shirts with ironic catchphrases and designs, called BustedTees.com. But it appears that the site may have been a bit slow to catch on to its own meme.

"We're kicking ourselves that we didn't," he said.

The New Hampshire company that makes the "Three Wolf Moon" shirt said that it doesn't generally mind being the butt of this joke.

"You have to be able to laugh at yourself," said Michael McGloin, a partner and art director at the Mountain, who added that he finds some of the reviews to be "freaking hilarious."

The company certainly doesn't mind the shirt's recent uptick in sales: "Three Wolf Moon" is sold out, and the Mountain has started printing up a fresh batch. It seems that the wolf theme was growing in popularity even before the Internet hipsters descended, McGloin said.

"Wolf shirts are super hot right now," he said. "It's the year of the wolf, I guess."

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