Today, one of the most influential media of the modern world is advertisement. Whether watching television, listening to the radio, reading a magazine or newspaper, I am bound to see hear or glimpse at an advertisement. However, the question still remains to what extent, in this era of shifting morals and increasing sexual content in entertainment, is it acceptable to use sex as a marketing tool? Does this definition of acceptable change when the target consumers are teenagers or underage children? It is no question that sex sells, but resolving where to draw the line is becoming more and more difficult with the society redefining what is acceptable with each new generation. The use of sex, especially in ads targeting teens, has become a popular choice by many design companies, but, when does a company’s marketing tactics shift from representing progressiveness to crossing the line? Well, sexual advertisement campaign strategies employed by Abercrombie and Fitch fully represent the later. (Carr and David 2003).
Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) is a retailer of mainly casual wear that focuses on consumers aged eighteen to twenty two. Boasting of more than three hundred outlets in the United States, and expanding internationally, the design house is known for its sexually suggestive advertising photography by Bruce Weber (Reichert, 330). The publications have been rendered grayscale. It featured mainly outdoor settings with half-nude male and female models. Abercrombie and Fitch pose only its employees for marketing campaigns. Brand representatives, nowadays called models, are used by the company as store customer service. Before the company’s settlement with the California State Labour Regulators in 2004, the models were required to buy and wear Abercrombie and Fitch apparel. The settlement also reimbursed over two million dollars to former employees for the forced purchase of branded company clothing (Strasburg and Jenny 2003).
A&F Quarterly was a lifestyle periodical published by Abercrombie and Fitch from the fall of 1997 to December 2003. The magazine published four times a year, featured articles about sex, college life, photo essays, nude photography by Bruce Weber and alcoholic beverages recipes. It also acted as a catalog, displaying the brand’s merchandise and prices. Sales for the magazine-catalog hybrid periodical averaged between one million and 1.2 million in the late 1990s (Carr and David 2003). In addition, a 280-page book by the company included highly suggestive poses by young adult models and articles on sex. These elements, apparently, were intended to boost the brand among college-age customers. William F. Buckley Jr. in his essay “Show Your I.D. Before Reading,” describes an erotic photo in the quarterly of a blonde photographed emerging from the ocean. Clutching her hair, she literally has no clothes on and is all wet.
Such sexually suggestive ad campaigns targeting the young generation, for example, the one run by Abercrombie and Fitch, are detrimental to the teenage society. Criticism to Abercrombie’s marketing strategies is, however, nothing new. According to the New York Times several groups have protested against Abercrombie’s sexual content for many years. These include, among others, National Coalition for the protection of children and Families, Focus on the Family Organization and the American Decency Organization (Tracie 2004). In 2002, Abercrombie released a line of thong underwire for pre-teen children with phrases like “Wink” and “Eye Candy” printed on them. Parents mounted nationwide storefront protests forcing the retail outlets to drop the line of clothing. In 2005, a Women and Girls Foundation from Southern Pennsylvania launched a protest against sexist messages on T-shirts by Abercrombie. Some of the messages were deemed insulting to femininity (Carr and David 2003).
In December 2003, Abercrombie and Fitch published its most controversial 280 page quarterly, yet. It contained, among other racy content, group sex images, tips for oral sex and young nude adults frolicking in a river. This raised an unprecedented, massive protest. A former model revealed that employees who were unwilling to pose nude were dismissed. Lindsay writes that Abercrombie and Fitch are fond of crossing lines but, firing non-compliant models is going overboard. She compared the gesture to drawing a line on sand.” (Lindsay 56).
On December 9th 2003, Abercrombie and Fitch discontinued the magazine which it had published since 1997. In a press release, to the Times company spokesman Hampton Carney said that although Abercrombie and Fitch had enjoyed success with the periodical over the years, the company believed it is time for new thinking and looked forward to starting an exciting and innovative campaign in the spring. He added that it was time to momentarily stop publication but, it would come back with something more exciting with classic photos and imagery (Strasburg and Jenny 2003).
The quarterly, however, resurfaced as a one-time limited edition published exclusively for the European market in 2008. In 2010, the quarterly came back in the name of a Back-to-School marketing campaign. This became the first issue to be sold simultaneously worldwide. This did not, however, mean that they were to lose their nerve and become totally conservative. Although opponents to said it was a response to mounting protests against the sexual content, Abercrombie and Fitch argued that recalling the magazine was as a result of countering a space for a perfume brand (Lindsay 58).
Whether the magazine, said to target mainly college-age students, fulfilled its purpose is no question. According to the times, approximately 200,000 copies of each issue released sold. Does this mean college students are more likely to buy Abercrombie’s apparel? All around most campus’s, Abercrombie’s popularity is evident. Most students are aware of the controversy that the marketing strategies of Abercrombie and Fitch have created whether they wear Abercrombie or not (Strasburg and Jenny 2003).
Personally, I believe controversy alone is a brilliant marketing strategy. Today, there is so much filling up consumers’ minds making it hard for advertisers to get their message across. In order to remain competitive, with hundreds if not thousands of brands of any product in the market, a company has to be different. By employing racy advertisement, Abercrombie has created a lot of controversy among critics and shoppers alike. These antics do not go unnoticed by a variety of news media. This attention has in turn created a lot of discussions going beyond normal scheduled media advertisement. Controversy is worthwhile as it usually gets an advert through the clutter.
In spite of the recall of the A&F magazine, Abercrombie and Fitch has said that it will maintain the same photographer, art director, stylists and crew behind the controversial quarterly to create its next catalog. Teenage population is growing twice as fast as the overall world population. The question whether or not sex sells to college students depends, therefore, on the individual. Sex sells, sex will continue to be used as an advertisement tool and that is the bottom line.