Commentary

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Comes Out Ahead

Have you noticed that things tend to get more interesting when Kirstie Alley weighs in on a subject and gets bleeped out?

“Dude, you’re a #(#*#! @@!!!$!,” the self-proclaimed “Fat Actress” told “Entertainment Tonight,” referring to Michael Jeffries, the CEO of Motherfucker Industries, I mean, Abercrombie & Fitch. 

As mostly everyone knows by now, Kirstie was reacting to a quote that Jeffries had given to Salon in 2006 that resurfaced this week, in which the CEO copped to the brand’s “exclusionary” (i.e., no uglies-no-fatties) marketing tactics: 

“We go after the cool kids… That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

(The largest size that Abercrombie carries for women is a 10.) 

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Thus, with good reason, the outrageous 68-year-old Jeffries has lately become the nation’s favorite punching bag. 

The easiest shot? His face, a living Botox and cosmetic surgery experiment, which makes him look like a mix of Siegfried and Roy after having been attacked by bees. He’s clearly no fan of Father Time, either. My favorite tweet among thousands asked him, “If you dislike fat, why do you inject so much of it into your face?” 

Greg Karber, an L.A. filmmaker, made news earlier in the week when he attempted a deeper, more meaningful response to the shocking Abercrombie ethos by going to Skid Row in Los Angeles and distributing AF clothing to homeless people. 

Posted to You Tube on Monday, his video, part of a “Fitch the Homeless” movement, has already garnered more than 4.5 million views. 

In fairness to Karber, he did this in response to a different but equally seditious AF company policy-- that the company burns its leftover, unsold clothing rather than donating it to charity. (To keep the brand “integrity.”)

Still, I’m not alone in thinking that having 4 million viewers guffawing at the grimy, smiling, toothless people wearing the AF brand only further marginalizes the homeless as the “other,” while playing right into Jeffries’ vigorously non-liver-spotted hands. 

Let’s face it, Jeffries actively courts controversy through his aggressively non-P.C. policies. (“I’ll okay that one ugly 200 pounder if you throw the guy in the wheelchair out,” he might be saying as he looks over store monitors from his headquarters—or not.) He might have a PR problem now and then, but it’s not a marketing problem. 

There are always lines around the block, packed with tourists, at the AF Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York City. 

Is it the near-naked men with cartoon six-packs, greeting customers? Partly, perhaps. Is it because the air is bombarded with that awful AF fragrance? Probably not. It’s mostly because the merchandise sells for almost double the price in Europe as it does here in the U.S., where it is still plenty pricey.

So that when foreign visitors come here, the stores are like Mecca. (Similarly, when Levi’s jeans were black-marketed in the then-Soviet Union, they became a symbol of cool style in the West, and traded for the price of a Soviet car.) 

I’m baffled as to how ads featuring Bruce Weber’s homo-erotic photography, pretty much the same mix since the early 1990s Calvin Klein days of handsome shirtless boys and a near-naked girl thrown in as a prop every now and then, sold a generation of preppy, frat house dudes on the brand. But it did. I do get the sense that the brand popularity with the high school crowd is fading, however, and Jeffries has to up the ante.

By Thursday, perhaps persuaded by company lawyers, Jeffries came out with a luke-warm statement of apology, saying that his old quote had been “taken out of context.” But he did re-emphasize that Abercrombie “targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers.”

Still, he added: “We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics."

Yes, perhaps, after being slapped with numerous lawsuits over discrimination in the workplace and all-white, all-thin-and beautiful hiring policies over the years, that’s true. The Abercrombie brand has long been the subject of boycotts and girlcotts, with no real effect. Where to begin with other corporate salutes to tastelessness—like the fact that the company sold padded bikini tops and thongs for little girls? Or that in 2002, A&F sold a shirt that featured the slogan "Wong Brothers Laundry Service – Two Wongs Can Make It White" with smiling figures in conical Asian field worker hats? The examples are legion.

Certainly, the brand that’s no longer cool with high-schoolers has been talked about non-stop, in every medium, for the past week, and has gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in free air time and publicity. 

I’d say that’s a win, a perverse win, yes, but still a win, for Jeffries. 

And perhaps his rebuilt punching bag face is a metaphor—dude might be, in Kirstie Allen’s world, a “*^&^^$#!” but he takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. 

9 comments about "Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Comes Out Ahead".
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  1. Marke Rubenstein from Skull Communications llc, May 17, 2013 at 12:17 p.m.

    I am a PR professional and do not subscribe to the notion that any PR is good PR. This disgusting man has done his brand irreparable harm. Not a win for Jeffries On a lighter note.... He does look freakish. I hope he does not allow himself to wear AF clothes

  2. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, May 17, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.

    Thank goodness every other retailer from American Apparel to Ralph Lauren doesn't just cater to good looking people, and that Coke and Budweiser feature average looking people in their commercials. And thank heavens fashion magazines are amply filled with models who are short, portly and even...even...even..older. I don't like A&F as much as the next person but this campaign against them is remarkably hypocritical.

  3. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 17, 2013 at 2:20 p.m.

    thanks for the comments! @PJ-- yes. every other brand or retailer operates the same way, but they're not dumb enough to come out and admit it!
    Just wondering, with the population so overweight, when the plus size wars will start gaining traction. not yet, certainly!

  4. Chris Simpson from AU/SOC, May 17, 2013 at 2:34 p.m.

    This article on A&F is as good an example as one might wish of a 'visionary' blogger unable to see the forest for the trees.
    A&F always has been a silly fad like a great many other profitable, silly fads. And as Jeffries now sinks slowly in the west, he's taking the A&F brand down with him. There is no unique or enduring value at A&F; not even a 'McDonald's' type of value of clean restrooms and predictable food.
    Instead, Jeffries has come to personify the darkness, greed, and vanity that underpins a great deal of consumer marketing. He and A&F loses. Watch it happen.

  5. John Andrews from The Katadhin Company, May 18, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    AF stock is up over 5% since this kerfuffle began. Does social outrage actually affect performance? Not an endorsement, just a question.

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 19, 2013 at 1 p.m.

    My point, exactly, John! Maybe for a short while. I agree with Chris that that the time for the brand has come and gone, and now you mostly see little kids wearing it. But there is also a newer brand of stores it owns--Hollister-- also with the near naked men theme.

  7. Anne-marie Kovacs from Boombox Network, May 19, 2013 at 9:55 p.m.

    I'm wondering what this brand positioning says about the young people still willing to buy it & wear it. It seems to me that the A&F brand will now be a symbol for arrogance, narcissism and other egotistical-like character flaws. I can't imagine that being associated with that can be a selling point.

  8. Wyatt Jefferies from Acxiom Corporation, May 20, 2013 at 9:46 a.m.

    @PJ, I think I agree with you. There's hypocrisy all around us. @Barbara, I wish all other brands would be honest enough to tell us how they really feel so we can shop as informed consumers. It hasn't necessarily been dumb from a business or personal perspective as I don't think Mr. Jeffries cares. His buyers probably feel the same way he does. I don't shop at A&F--never have and don't have any plans to start.

  9. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 20, 2013 at 7:59 p.m.

    Another way to view: Wear a brand with a logo and see how much you are getting paid to advertise that brand. Or: Which male model will be the first to "model" eye make-up for the everyday wear or fat guy wearing a bram for man boobs ? Or: So every kid can wear the same stuff all the kids wear to show their individuality. Ladybug never made large sizes either. Kids never heard of it ? Let liver lips lick it. International competition is coming in for the kill.

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