True Public Education: Marketing at Abercrombie & Fitch

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This past Saturday my children and I participated in the end-of-summer ritual of back-to-school shopping. My daughter is 9 and my son is 7.  Shopping, other than at the Lego store, is not a favorite pastime of theirs.  I feel the same way about it; it’s all about efficiency. Make a list, get in, get out and be done with it.

Since it had to get done, we decided to make it as pleasant a day as possible. It was a lovely, sunny day so we drove to our nearest outdoor mall and had a pre-shopping lunch at one of their favorite restaurants.

Fortified by lunch, we embarked on the business of finding clothes and shoes.  The restaurant we chose happens to be right next door to an Abercrombie and Fitch store.  Cutting through Abercrombie gets us directly at the part of the mall where I shop for their clothes, minimizing the long walk around and the inevitable whining that comes with it.  I had cut through before alone. This was the first time with my kids, which gave me an entirely different viewpoint—I usually just run through without even looking around, but I move at a slower pace with my kids and become much more aware of my surroundings.

The scent of Abercrombie hit us before we even got to the front doors.  A strong, intoxicating aroma that envelops you as you walk into the dimly lit interior that pulsates to the throbbing beat of a dance club playlist.

An 8 foot by 10 foot black and white photo of a male crotch greeted us upon entering the store.  A young man’s shirtless profile, abs to thigh, facing a mirror, shorts partially unbuttoned, his hand reaching down.

I grabbed my kids and started speeding through the dark, deep depths of the store only to be greeted by another 8×10 foot black and white photo, this time of a girl naked from the waist up, barely covering her breasts with her hand.

The store is crowded.  The merchandise, tables and comfy, leather chairs make it difficult to just pass through. It’s a labyrinthine experience skirting to the right and left of shoppers, employees and display after display.

We pressed on through the throng and I felt like I was back in a college bar—the lights, the music, the dark walls. All that was missing was the scent of stale beer and a sticky floor.

“That must be the perfume” my daugher said, pointing to a display table covered with bottles and a large black and white photo of another shirtless male clad only in jeans riding so low that his pelvic area is nearly completely exposed.

We finally escaped into the bright sunlight on the other side and I felt as if I had entered the real world again.  This has been my last shortcut through Abercrombie.

My kids don’t watch TV.  They know who Justin Beiber and Katy Perry are due to the backpack designs of the other kids at school.  They don’t listen to FM radio.  They are stuck with the 80’s station on XM that is always on in my car.  They know more about John, Paul, George and Ringo than Katy, Britney, or Gaga.  I like it that way. They are kids, after all.

Abercrombie and Fitch is a store.  In a mall.  In a very public forum. There are very few places where people gather anymore.  In ancient times there was the Greek agora, the Roman forum itself, the town square.  Even in the most recent centuries the piazzas or city squares served a similar purpose—a place where people could gather, interact, protest, engage in discourse

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.  We have our shopping malls and our sporting venues, neither one lending itself to discourse, but they are the conduits for our perceptions of ourselves and our sometimes narrow world.  But these places are focused solely on consumption, be it shopping, sports, advertising, beer, food.  They are not venues of debate, conversation or education for that matter.  Bright lights, loud music, roaring crowds—visual and auditory over-stimulation, with a side of fries.

Abercrombie may sell clothes, but their advertising sells sex.  Their store ambience sells sex.  The clothes may hang on the racks and sit on the tables, but the posters do not truly have clothes on display—they’re parading bodies; mostly just isolated body parts, belonging specifically to young, white males.  Sex is what it is all about but the facelessness, the anonymity of the majority of the ads, the view of just body parts is disturbing.  Isn’t sex supposed to actually be about  the two people involved and not just the anatomical parts that perform the activity? What does this message say to my children, the teens shopping in the store? Sex is all about appearance, about the unattainable perfection of the bodies, the detached, passionless view of sex as an activity, and not the basis of a relationship or a form of communication?

Teen marketing is a 100 billion dollar industry, and it seems evident that this segment of advertising has decided that it’s acceptable to exploit a teen’s emerging sexuality. The Wall Street Cheat Sheet reports that Abercrombie and Fitch’s “net income for the apparel store rose to $32 million (35 cents per share) vs. $19.5 million (22 cents per share) in the same quarter a year earlier. This marks a rise of 64.4% from the year earlier quarter.”  *

So I guess it’s working.

From the Financial Times online “. . . Stuart Wood, executive creative director at design consultancy Fitch, believes it is a clever move to garner publicity…[Abercrombie & Fitch] is all about sex and aspiration.”

Sex and aspiration.  That about covers it.  But that shouldn’t be what you see at a public mall.


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  1. Douglas Storm September 4, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    As I was reading this I thought, “okay, Pho, yeah, sex sells, when has it not been the focus of advertising?”

    Then I thought, why would I accept that as a commonplace?

    Worse, as you point out, this marketing of faceless body parts seems to me to lend support to a kind of preparatory education in the mindset of pornography.

    Abercrombie & Fitch are seeding the imaginary that is sex without meaning. It’s easy to mistake this with “meaningless sex”; by that I mean sex as occasional yet still within your emotional understanding of the act–a human action. Sex stripped of meaning in this kind of “image” projection that is detached from human society–existing only as image, only as imaginary–is devoid of humanity AND devoid of the animal.

    Perhaps it is the unavoidable corollary to our modern technological detachment and “receptivity” to corporate “suggestions” of what “being” and life are.

    The less meaningful life is, the more we try to fill it with the imaginaries that are are for sale.

    But like a fast food cheeseburger offering the initial distraction of chemically induced “taste” excitation and then leaves us emptier when our stomach finds no nutrition to extract, so too the marketing of relationless relations. Empty and detached…

    Exactly the kind of life I’d hoped to offer my children.

  2. focus September 5, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    as someone else said to me recently about this issue–it’s exploitation and abuse. Photos of barely clad teenagers in suggestive poses can qualify as pornography online but as advertising in the mall. Which is where children can see it, whether they or their parents/guardians want them to or not.

  3. Douglas Storm September 6, 2011 at 9:19 am

    It is certainly a valid retort to “turn off your tv if you don’t like it”…corollary here being, don’t go anywhere if you don’t like it.

  4. focus September 6, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Exactly! I can certainly turn the tv off, monitor what movies they see, what magazines come into the house but I don’t have any control over billboards, store displays etc.

  5. focus September 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    thanks Eric. I can see leaving them at home to avoid the whining that comes with clothes shopping but leaving them at home to avoid the advertising issues is a bigger deal. It’s not just Abercrombie either. It’s Victoria’s Secret and various others too. Abercrombie is currently the one that had the recent visceral impact. But there are more.

  6. kat September 18, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    It’s funny, but I don’t find the provocative advertising as offensive as much as their pervasive culture of racism.


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