Abercrombie & Fitch sex-based ad approach prompts boycott

Sally Khudairi (sk@zotgroup.com)
Thu, 9 Dec 1999 09:41:45 -0500


Abercrombie & Fitch sex-based ad approach prompts boycott

[ Comtex News : Comtex/NewsGrid Rcvd: 1999-12-09T08:36:52-05:00 ]

The fast-growing chain has become known for its creative use of scantily
clad, muscled bodies in its catalog of preppie clothing. Male and female
models, in various states of undress, often are wrapped around each other in
suggestive poses.

The racy catalog has proved so popular that Abercrombie & Fitch actually
sells it for $6 a copy.

Now, the same sexy marketing approach is landing the Reynoldsburg,
Ohio-based chain in hot water.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood is calling for a consumer boycott of
Abercrombie because of the sexually explicit nature of its holiday ''Naughty
or Nice'' catalog.

''This year's catalog clearly crosses the line. There is nudity. There is
even an interview with a porn star,'' Wood said. Wood, who has three
children ages 10, 13 and 14, is asking Abercrombie to recall its holiday
catalog, but has no current plans to organize protests outside stores.

Last month, Abercrombie was under fire from another state official. Michigan
Atty. Gen. Jennifer Granholm sent a letter to the apparel company
complaining that the same holiday catalog contained sexual material that
cannot be distributed to minors under Michigan law.

Last year, Abercrombie angered Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other
anti-drunk driving groups with catalog feature stories containing alcoholic
drink recipes, such as ''Brain Hemorrhage,'' and instructions for a drinking
game.

Abercrombie insists that its catalog is aimed at an older target audience:
college age kids 18 to 22, not minors, though, of course, for most members
of this group drinking is illegal. Much of the criticism of the quarterly
300-page catalog stems from that misunderstanding, the company believes.

''We've always said this is adult stuff, not for anyone under 18,'' said
Abercrombie spokesman Hampton Carney.

But there's no denying that teens love the Abercrombie brand and are some of
the chain's best customers. In a survey of teen-agers by Northbrook-based
Teenage Research Unlimited, teens ranked Abercrombie as the sixth-coolest
brand out there, ahead of world-brands such as Coca-Cola, Levi's and
Nintendo.

Critics such as Wood see Abercrombie's marketing strategy as part of a
larger barrage of sexual messages aimed at teens through everything from rap
music to movies to clothes. And they think parents have a responsibility to
try to do something about it.

At the Wood household, the lieutenant governor's kids would love to wear
Abercrombie clothes. ''But we've agreed we wouldn't be patronizing them,''
Wood said. ''I hope my children will appreciate the boundaries I've set.''

Certainly, the barrage of criticism has gotten Abercrombie's attention.

After last year's complaints, Abercrombie recalled its summer catalog and
apologized to those who were offended. After the Michigan attorney general
raised her objections, Abercrombie agreed to require identification from
buyers of its catalog to make sure they are at least 18. The carding policy
is in place at the 205 Abercrombie stores around the country.

The company remains firm, however, that it has no plans to change the
contents of its catalog. ''It's become the cornerstone in communication to
our Abercrombie customer,'' Carney said. ''Everything we do is about a
youthful and spirited, responsible life. We never do anything to let our
customers down in any way.''

Carney declined to speculate on the impact of Wood's call for a boycott. No
one at Abercrombie has yet spoken with Wood, he said.

All the negative attention hasn't hurt Abercrombie's sales. The company
recently posted its 29th consecutive quarter of record sales and earnings.
And Abercrombie's sales gains each month are among the highest in the retail
industry.

In fact, after the company recalled its drinking catalog, paid circulation
soared from about 75,000 to 100,000, and the catalog became a collectors'
item.

Retail experts are divided about whether efforts like Wood's boycott call
will help or hurt Abercrombie in the future.

Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report in Upper Montclair,
N.J., said he believes the chain is running the risk of alienating parents.

''They have come across a very effective marketing tool, but the ultimate
price they have to pay may be far in excess of benefits,'' Barnard said.
''In this case, we're dealing with a book of pornography.''

But other retail experts say the adverse publicity probably will make
Abercrombie even more alluring to teens.

''This is actually doing spectacular things for their business. It gives
them more publicity, increases demand and makes more consumers want to look
at it,'' said Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a retail
consulting firm with offices in New York, California and Florida.

Cohen said she believes the only people who will respond to boycotts of
Abercrombie are those who weren't shopping there anyway.

Peter Zollo, president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a teen-age consumer
research firm, agrees.

''There's no question that Abercrombie appeals to teen-agers because it's
the whole forbidden fruit syndrome. These guys are hormonally driven. What's
on the forefront of their minds? It's sex. You don't have to be a marketer
to understand that.''

Using sex to appeal to teens is nothing new, Zollo notes. Designer Calvin
Klein created similar controversy by using partially clad young models to
advertise his line of underwear, beginning in the 1980s. Although the
objectionable ads were discontinued, Calvin Klein underwear has grown in
popularity over the years and is now one of the industry's leading brands.

(c) 1999, Chicago Tribune.

-0-

Visit the Chicago Tribune on America Online (keyword: Tribune) or the
Internet Tribune at http://www.chicago.tribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-08-99 1854EST