“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.