Retailer's Racy Catalog to Return
July 13, 2010
Activists are assailing teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch’s decision to resurrect its racy catalog after seven years.
The A&F Quarterly, which in years past sparked outrage and boycotts for its soft-porn images of nude and almost-nude young models in sexually provocative poses, will be released at Abercrombie stores Saturday.
Shot by fashion photographer Bruce Weber, images in the 176-page, screen-test-themed catalog include a menage a trois, a thong-wearing female making out against a wall with a shirtless male, and a naked male model on a set.
Buyers of the $10 catalog must be at least 18, but that never stopped it from falling into the hands of younger kids, said Josh Golin, of the Boston nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Abercrombie has always shown a ``blatant disregard'' for children's well-being, he said.
``They're one of the most popular brands with preteens and teens, and yet they consistently sexualize and objectify children,'' Golin said. ``All they care about is getting people to their stores.''
That's precisely why Babson College marketing professor Dhruv Grewal believes Abercrombie made the calculated move to bring back the catalog: to drive potential sales. The higher-priced retailer had a very difficult 2009 as it contended with the recession. Overall sales plummeted 16 percent to $2.93 billion for the fiscal year ended Jan. 30.
``This catalog was always a major attention-getter, and these days you can imagine that will include social media,'' Grewal said. ``Once people get the catalog, they will be posting on blogs and using Facebook and Twitter. That's likely to drive more traffic both to the stores and the Web site.''
Abercrombie didn't return calls for comment. It's been promoting the catalog to its 1.3 million Facebook fans, saying it has ``all the things A&F does best . . . abs, hot bodies and a whole lot more.''
Abercrombie is one of the ``worst repeat offenders of selling sex to their clientele,'' said Christina Knowles, director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women. Past protests prompted the retailer to pull children's thong underwear from its shelves and girls' T-shirts emblazoned with ``Why do I need a brain when I have these?''
``It's a real culture of sex and objectification on all levels, and it's not healthy for girls or boys,'' Knowles said.
Abercrombie & Fitch Co. may have pushed the underwear envelope too far.
The national clothing chain, with a history of using racy marketing to attract teen shoppers, sparked outrage among parents, interest groups and others this week by peddling a line of thong underwear for preteen girls.
The rearless underwear bears the provocative phrases "eye candy" and "wink, wink." Abercrombie, of New Albany, Ohio, said the thongs were aimed at girls 10 to 16, but the small underwear appear to fit even younger girls.
Yesterday, however, it appeared the retailer, under pressure and facing calls for boycotts, yanked the girls' thongs from store shelves. An Abercrombie executive told the American Family Association yesterday that the clothing line had been dropped, said Donald Wildmon, chairman of the Tupelo, Miss., family values group.
"This time they were caught with their underwear down," Wildmon said. "They were going after little children - 7-, 8-, 9-year-old kids - telling them it was good that they were a sex object."
Abercrombie executives did not return phone calls, and an outside spokesman wouldn't comment. But at the Abercrombie store in Faneuil Hall yesterday, the girls' thongs were gone. A worker at the Boston store said they were pulled because of the controversy.
"That article of clothing is completely inappropriate for my 9-year-old," said Phyllis Gordon, a Brookline mother. "My 14-year-old wanted to get one and I have a problem with that. It all relates to there being too much, too young, too fast (for kids) in our society."
Abercrombie offered only a written statement that said the underwear for young girls was supposed to be lighthearted and cute. "Any misrepresentation of that is purely in the eye of the beholder."
But the retailer is known for using sex to sell, and has drawn past fire for quarterly catalogs featuring nude, young models in pictorials described by some opponents as "soft porn."
"They've intentionally gone over the top relative to social mores," said Kathleen Seiders, marketing professor at Babson College, adding that Abercrombie is likely seeking the attention from teen and 20-something core customers that comes with a swirling controversy.
"It's obviously intentional," Seiders said. "In order to stay closer to the edge, they periodically pull something like this. It's almost like a high-wire stunt."
It's not the first time a retailer has outraged parents by selling sexually charged products aimed at young kids. A couple years ago Sears offered a bra that created cleavage for girls as young as eight or nine, said Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a professor at Cornell University and author of "The Body Project."
"It doesn't help any child, boy or girl, to have their body eroticized and made to look like an adult, before they have any emotional or cognitive understanding of what adult sexuality is," Brumberg said. "Why do we want to be enticed erotically at the same time that we're going through this incredible pain of pedophilia?"
Still, marketers say the thong is increasingly mainstream, at least for girls 12 and older. Victoria's Secret entered the teen market this month, with a design-your-own line. Teenage girls can customize bras and thongs with such slogans as as "love me."
"There's a huge consumer demand for this," said Derek White, senior vice president with marketing company Alloy Inc's 360 Youth. "It's a style statement."
Bill Johnson, president of the American Decency Association, a Christian group, said his group's Abercrombie boycott will remain in place, even if the underwear was pulled. "We're just simply outraged by the sexualization of children and the attack this represents on their innocence."