Yo, Abercrombie - Here's The Skinny: You Are Totally Fitched

“Google-able in perpetuity.”

That's a phrase from Can’t Buy Me Like that I’ve been using in front of audiences around the world for several years. It's about the involuntary transparency that has taken brands and all institutions from behind their walled fortresses and re-situated them in glass houses, where their every action and inaction is on public display.


Just Google “Nike sweatshop.” This is an issue that leaped up last in the 1990s, and which Nike has long since ameliorated, but is recallable in all its appalling detail with a few keystrokes. And always will be. In the digital age, scandal is everlasting. Also retroactive.

Last week, Abercrombie & Fitch was pilloried in social media -- and mainstream media, too -- for obnoxious and self-indicting remarks made by its chairman Mike Jeffries… in 2006, when he explained why Abercrombie doesn't sell plus sizes, lest the brand be damaged by showing up on overweight girls. Now Jeffries, in the Calvin Klein/Oliviero Toscani vein, has long styled himself a provocateur -- which is a euphemism for “asshole with an ad budget.” So it is no surprise that he is in the middle of a controversy. What’s notable is that his arrogance and condescension are catching up to him on a seven-year time delay.

This is what he told Salon back then:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Candidly, the man is repulsive in every way. Bullying as a marketing strategy is, and has always been, beneath contempt. Fortunately, there is no statute of limitations on social media and last week Reddit and Tumblr put him back in play, as if he had shot his mouth off yesterday.

No, really -- shot his mouth off. Have you seen this guy? His lips look like the result of botched reconstructive surgery, and the rest of his face is pretty cosmetic-creepy, as well. In the words of the great Barbara Lippert: “a mix of Siegfried and Roy after having been attacked by bees.” The fact has been gleefully embraced by his critics, who know irony when they see it and don’t mind giving the goose what’s good for the gander. If Abercrombie wants lookism, give ‘em some lookism. One Tweeter posted Jeffries’ photo with the comment: "If you hate fat so much why did you have it injected in your face?”

Then there is the movement being mounted by Los Angeles filmmaker Greg Karber to hand out used Abercrombie & Fitch garments to the homeless to devalue the brand (a second wrong that certainly doesn’t make a right, but still made me laugh out loud.) All of which is to say: the brand is getting quite a buttfitching.

Some have speculated that this all redounds to Jeffries’ advantage, on the theory that controversy yields attention which yields interest which yields sales. It’s possible. The greater possibility, though, is that Abercrombie will increasingly become a logo non grata among the very image-conscious high schoolers the brand has always cultivated. Which would destroy the business.

Suits me fine. Either way, the episode is a powerful reminder that in the Relationship Era, you can do all the soft-porn advertising you want, but your image is not in your control.  Your conduct and values are discoverable, shareable -- and, yes -- Google-able in perpetuity. And you will be judged accordingly.

The social media can be like Santa Claus, bestowing wonderful gifts. But don’t forget: He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so…

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this column, the fifth paragraph omitted the fact about Abercrombie's no-plus-sizes-for-girls policy.

13 comments about "Yo, Abercrombie - Here's The Skinny: You Are Totally Fitched".
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  1. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, May 20, 2013 at 9:29 a.m.

    There are so many immortal turns of phrase here it's hard to pick a favorite.

  2. Stephanie Schwab from Crackerjack Marketing, May 20, 2013 at 11:47 a.m.

    Just to play devil's advocate here: You yourself advocate for brand transparency. A&F is being utterly transparent when they state what their brand is about and who it's for. What's wrong with that, in principle?

    And, as you say, they may gain, or totally lose, as a result of that transparency. Their problem, right?

  3. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, May 20, 2013 at 11:47 a.m.

    So how do TV shows and movies get away with hiring good-looking people in starring roles, if Jeffries is pilloried for doing the same in his stores?

  4. Tony Wright from WrightIMC, May 20, 2013 at 11:50 a.m.

    As someone who can't remember a time when he could wear clothes from A-F, I agree with the backlash. But I don't share your assessment that A-F will see any monetary effects from this controversy. In fact, my opinion, based upon recent research I have done (you can download my White Paper called "Should your brand take a stand" which just came out last week here: I think that the long-term economic impact will be favorable. I guess only time will tell.

  5. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, May 20, 2013 at noon

    Of course everybody's models are impossibly attractive. So they will attract. But that's very different from strategically shunning the fat kids, which is simply cruel.

    The Manson Family was transparent, too.


  6. Antoinette de Janasz from The Twooth Timer Company, May 20, 2013 at 12:02 p.m.

    I don't see why Greg Karber's movement is wrong. I'm sure his intentions are not purely altruistic but I think he's making a statement in the best possible way. As a business owner, I am appalled at Mike Jeffries' view and A & F's lack of reaction. A large company should use its resources to improve society not further prejudice!

  7. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, May 20, 2013 at 12:08 p.m.

    This hatchet job probably holds up if you go and look at this guy in detail, but you don't make a strong case here. It feels more to me like 1) A social mob are tar and feathering a brand based on a seven year old comment that was published in an online magazine (how is this news?) and 2) you are equating an aspirational/elitist brand message -- wanting to be the cool, popular kid -- with bullying. This trivializes what bullying actually is.

  8. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, May 20, 2013 at 12:12 p.m.


    If you are saying that A&F doesn't make plus size clothes/shuns fat kids which you allude to in the comments, you never actually make that point in the article. Nor back it up with supporting facts. If that is your underlying point, why not actually make it?

  9. Chintamani Rao from Independent Marketing and Media Consultant, May 21, 2013 at 3:54 a.m.

    Whatever your views, do you have to be personal about the man's looks? That's in terribly poor taste. I was an admirer of yours when you wrote in Ad Age. This column doesn't cut it. You've lost it, Garfield.

  10. Krista C from Clio Communications, May 21, 2013 at 12:16 p.m.

    I think the point of Google-able forever - and the issues A&F now faces six years later - could have been made without the paragraph about Jeffries looks. Seems to me you just lowered yourself to his level.

  11. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, May 21, 2013 at 12:32 p.m.

    Krista and Chintamari,

    Point taken. That was a first for me in thousands of columns over many years. And a tough call. But I decided finally that I wanted to dramatize the cruelty of A&F's strategy. What the social media and I have done to Jeffries is what Abercrombie does as its business model. I agree. It is mean.

  12. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, May 24, 2013 at 3:41 p.m.

    Appreciated the apology; But I still wonder about your cruelty comment. There is kind a "reverse racism" type question here. For example, if Lady Gaga (or Hot Topic) launched a clothes line and said..."I don't want the popular kids." I only want the misfits and the social outcasts to buy my clothes. We really don't want the popular kids to feel comfortable in our store. Would that be ok? Or cruel?

    All brands do some version of this, but this guy didn't do it with sensitivity. That doesn't make it cruel or bullying, at least in my eyes. Maybe it is generational-- we now live in a world where nerds, goths, urban kids, preppies, etc... are all well catered to by brands. So where you see excluded, others see "not targeted." Anyway, you seem to get it that you crossed a line with the ad hominem, so I guess that's a good start.

  13. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 25, 2013 at 9:46 a.m.

    It is sad that you can no longer walk into a store on Madison Avenue called Abercrombie and Fitch and buy a safari jacket, a double-barrel shotgun and forty cartridges, a fishing pole, and an ottoman in the shape of a hippo as hemingway did in the 1950s ambling down from his suite at the sherry netherland

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