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Tuesday, February 27, 2001
Updated: October 2, 4:34 AM ET
Just don't do it

By Tom Farrey
ESPN.com

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).

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:

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