When New York resident Lauren Todd saw a photo of the "I’m too pretty to do homework" T-shirt on Facebook last August, she was so annoyed, she started a petition on the social action website Change.org.
"It was outrageous enough to go on Facebook but it was actually more outrageous than that," she told CBS News, "and I felt like I needed to do something about it.”
Her petition urged shoppers to boycott J.C. Penney until it stopped selling shirts with what she called sexist messaging.
Five hours later, Shelby Knox, director of women’s rights organizing for Change.org, started tweeting about the petition to her thousands of Twitter followers.
Some of them began tweeting about the shirt and signed Todd’s digital petition.
"From the time that Lauren started the petition on Change.org and J.C. Penney pulled the shirt, it was about 10 hours," Knox says, "in which it got over 2,000 signatures and at one point was generating over 400 tweets a minute.”
According to Knox, with every new signature, emails were automatically sent to the J.C. Penney public relations team as well as its CEO.
J.C. Penney, which would not comment for this story, would not say how it comes up with the designs for its kids clothing.
'Ingrained in our culture'
Designer John Noone has worked with a number of major retailers and says he’s always used slogans with words like "pretty" or "princess" for girls.
"Because it’s easy to do, I guess it’s just so ingrained in our culture that it’s an easy sale," Noone says. "It’s gonna be easier to sell a shirt that says, you know, ‘My little princess’ than ‘My A student’.”
And these days, he says, designers get their ideas from anywhere: a celebrity tweet, a line on a TV show.
"And if you think it’s funny and the designer thinks it’s funny and the buyer thinks it’s funny, then, you know, it makes it to the store.”
But now, if a consumer doesn't think the designs are funny, they can do more than just not buy the shirt.
Retailers take notice
Not long after J.C. Penney pulled the ‘I’m too pretty’ shirt, fashion chain Forever 21 was hit by a barrage of online complaints, a petition and publicity about one of its girls’ shirts which read, "Allergic to Algebra." The retailer removed it the day after the story spread.
Not all consumers have strong feelings about T-shirt messaging. Robin Sackin, a professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, thinks people need to lighten up. She says children are influenced by their parents - not slogans on T-shirts.
"So if my child says to me ‘Mommy, I want to get that,’ I’d say, ‘OK, you can have it, but I don’t care if you’re pretty, you’re doing your homework.’"
Not all online petitions are effective. The recent change.org petition started by Target employees who didn't want the retailer to open on Thanksgiving got more than 200,000 signatures, but the company didn't budge.
The difference, says Ben Rattray, CEO of Change.org, is that in the case of J.C. Penney, a vital group of consumers was up in arms.
"Companies are certainly more concerned when the people involved are moms specifically," says Rattray. "I mean women in general, and moms in particular, control the vast majority of spending in their households."
Keeping up the pressure
Michele Yulo, a mother who signed the J.C. Penney petition, also spread the word via her blog, Facebook and Twitter. She’s been frustrated for years about the kind of clothing retailers sell for young girls, and the harm it might do to girls’ self-esteem as they grow up.
"It doesn’t have to be egregious to sink into the mindset. It’s just this, I call it, a slow drip of messages.”
Yulo even started her own girls’ clothing brand, called "Princess Free Zone," which features non-stereotypical colors and designs. But she still keeps up the pressure on mainstream retailers.
Last month she emailed the children’s wear company Gymboree and started an online petition to complain about baby outfits which read "Smart like Daddy" and "Pretty Like Mommy".
Days later, Gymboree emailed Yulo to say the items were no longer for sale.