One typically thinks of Etsy, the $1.8-billion marketplace for crafters and creators, as a hub of twee stationary and terrariums, of hand-painted pottery and felted ornaments and hand-lettered chalkboard art.
According to a change in Etsy’s sales policy, made earlier this month, the site will not allow “any metaphysical service that promises or suggests it will effect a physical change (e.g., weight loss) or other outcome (e.g., love, revenge).” The site has reportedly begun cracking down in recent days, asking store owners to reword their listings or taking the shops down entirely.
Magico-medicinal Yoruba soaps? Nah.
Protection spells in tiny glass bottles? Probably not.
Etsy hasn’t yet taken action on these crystals that promise to heal AIDS, cancer, depression, hypotension and constipation, among a variety of other ailments — but we’re sure that’s forthcoming.
“Many have told me their shops are being closed without so much as notice,” said Etsy-seller Ashley Coulton, who is petitioning Etsy to rethink the policy clarification. “I do worry about the effect this will have on my business … I do believe the actions of Etsy are in fact, discriminatory toward Wiccan and Pagan faiths.”
Coulton is one of several high-profile sellers who’s promised to relocate: She’s currently building out an independent site from which to sell her bath salts, crystal sets and tarot readings. Joining her is Nancy of White Magick Alchemy, the company that made the candles for Lifetime’s “Witches of East End,” and Iyá Ekundayo, a Brazilian priestess who sells traditional medicines and cowrie divinations, and is vowing to launch her own alternative marketplace.
“It [is] a Witch Hunt,” Ekundayo told The Post. “They went after people supposedly offering tangible and intangible items and services [promising] end results, but steered away from anything in the Christian and Judaism sections.”
Ekundayo, like many of the self-described priestesses and witches protesting the Etsy crackdown, characterizes her shop as a spiritual endeavor, not a commercial one: The United Nations, she points out, has recognized and protected minor pagan faiths, like hers. U.S. courts have also repeatedly confirmed that Wicca is a legitimate religion.
That said, not every witch promising love and fame on Etsy is doing it in God’s/gods’ name(s). And that puts the company — which, notably, just went public — in the very uncomfortable position of differentiating between false advertising that could endanger customers, and genuine religious claims.
“Etsy strongly believes in freedom of thought, expression, and religion, and we will never institute a policy that discriminates against sellers for their religious beliefs or practices,” Sara Cohen, an Etsy spokeswoman, told The Post in a statement.
Rather, she said, the motivation behind the policy change was to reiterate that the company only allows the sale of products, not services, and to “protect our community from business practices that prey upon vulnerable and desperate shoppers — such as those seeking a treatment for cancer or infertility, or those with self-esteem issues who are seeking a spell for weight loss or beauty enhancement.”
(It would certainly appear that some of those “desperate shoppers” have been burned already: “I think this must be used in a spell rather than on its own on your body, does not do much,” reads a recent one-star review for a potion that promises to help the user “dominate and control a male lover.”)
See, when self-proclaimed witches describe a spell (or a crystal, or a candle, or a wand) for sale on Etsy, they’re essentially advertising. And under section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, no business — no matter how small or spiritual — can advertise in a way that’s deceptive, unfair or misleading.
“It’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations in this area,” said Rich Cleland, an attorney in the advertising practices division of the Federal Trade Commission. “But if someone is making an objective claim that a crystal cures cancer, that’s something people could take seriously — and that needs to have scientific evidence behind it.”
Generally speaking, the FTC allows businesses to make claims that are so obviously false, no one could ever really be misled. (“This toilet paper will save your life!”) And it will also allow obvious expressions of religious faith, even when they appear to be phrased as facts. (Cleland said it’s unlikely that his department would, for instance, investigate the holy cards sold at the Vatican.)
But the FTC draws the line at objective claims: specific promises for specific, measurable, tangible results. You simply can’t say your $20 candle cures cancer, even if you really, truly believe it does. (To further complicate things, if you say a product cures, treats or aids any physical ailment, it’s automatically classified as a drug and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.)
Case in point? In 2007, the FTC took action against Daniel Chapter One, a so-called “health & healing ministry” that sold herbs and other “Biblical remedies” for cancer. Despite the company’s insistence that it was faith-based — their Web site still describes them as ministers who oversee a “home church” — the couple behind it was indicted on a string of misdemeanors last year, largely related to the claims about cancer.
Notably, Etsy says their crackdown was “not the result of any external factors,” such as litigation or pressure from government regulators. (For what it’s worth, a New York man recently filed a lawsuit against a fortuneteller who promised to reincarnate his deceased love, and the FTC’s consumer blog just warned of fortune-telling scams on Tuesday.) The site also insists it will enforce the policy consistently across both pagan and non-pagan shops: If you can’t sell a headache-curing spell, the policy goes, you also can’t sell a headache-curing rosary.
As of this writing, however, it doesn’t appear that many rosaries or similar artifacts have been taken down. Etsy’s seller forums log no complaints from Christian sellers, though discussion threads on the crackdown on metaphysical objects abound.
There are still a good many Etsy stores peddling teas and other “natural remedies” for everything from headaches to high blood pressure. One popular Christian store, with nearly 1,600 sales, sells sets of holy cards and crystal chaplets that are marketed as “remedies” for AIDS, addiction and kidney disease.
There’s a reason those shops are still up, Ekundayo said: they “fit the cookie cutter mold of God, Jesus, baseball and apple pie,” whereas her shop doesn’t.
“Most people (Etsy) are woefully ignorant of world geography and belief systems,” she added. “This is the USA, and there will be no hocus pocus.”
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