Friday, January 28, 2011
I’m not showing you the rest of this ad. What I want you to look at is this girl’s face. She is, if she’s real, a child. Or is meant to look like one. The company that commissioned this illustration and the ad in which it appears would like you to buy cotton underpants from them.
American Apparel was always a pretty interesting brand. Underpinned by a comparatively ethical business model, they neatly assumed the position pioneered – and then abandoned – by Gap in the early 1990s. Virtually unbranded, willing to put some money where their mouths are on garment industry labour practices, they became a campus darling brand around the world. In my own classroom, American Apparel often came up as an exemplary post-modern brand, a way to declare that the wearer was above marketing. Nobody discussed the naughty pictures. They were, I think people concluded, ironic. An edgy send-up of fashion advertising. Pop art. Like a lot of people, this Newsweek blogger, for example, I was on the fence. It didn’t seem to be more than people could handle. And there seemed to be a lot of goodness in their value proposition.
Sex doesn’t really sell. Everybody likes to say it does, but mostly that’s because they don’t want to discourage marketers from decorating their ads with attractive, underdressed people. The truth is that sex makes people like ads. Personally, I’ve never seen much evidence that it actually sells anything other than itself and perhaps the odd condom. So marketers and consumers kind of wink at each other and accept a little borrowed carnal interest as all in fun, but neither side generally loses sight of the fact that an ad is still an ad, and something in it is actually for sale.
American Apparel is well outside that arrangement now. Watching Dov Charney cathart his high school dating issues, I waver between being insulted that he thinks this will work, and worried that he thinks this is okay. Neither accrues any particular value to the brand, and more’s the pity given that the company itself has an interesting story to tell. Or did. American Apparel has become kind of like a weird old uncle who plays a great game of golf. At a certain point, no matter how impressive his swing, we’ll do anything to avoid being stuck in the cart with him.
As a citizen consumer, you can formulate your own moral take on these latest ads. But if brands are your thing, trust me. This was a mistake. Playing some kind of arrogant game to see what they can get away with, American Apparel seems to be telling us that its value proposition never actually meant that much to them. In the process, they’ll risk becoming an embarrassment to their customers rather than a choice they feel ethically good about.
Such a waste.
P.S. American Apparel invites comment on their ads at their web site, which is laudable. I just couldn't bring myself to encourage them, but you may be a better person than I, in which case feel free.
PPS. I'm delighted to see that, whether it's cause or effect, American Apparel is not enjoying the approval of the marketplace right now. Interesting read here.