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Abercrombie Underwear Shop Plays Up Goods, but Not Its Own


Bob Garfield

Advertising Age
March 10, 2008


Just when you thought there weren't enough mall stores to satisfy you, Courtney, Morgan, Topher and Zach, along comes Abercrombie & Fitch to sell you underwear with a spinoff chain called Gilly Hicks, Sydney.

It's not called that because there are any Gilly Hicks stores in Sydney or planned for Sydney. It's not called that because anyone named Gilly Hicks actually exists or existed. It's called that because, well, an Australian theme worked out just swell for Outback Steakhouse and also because Australia is Down Under.

Down Under. Get it?

So Abercrombie has contrived an elaborate brand "history" for Gilly Hicks, a history there is no need to recount here, because it is just made up -- like Crocodile Dundee's "Walkabout Creek" and Mel Gibson's version of the Holocaust. Australia-ishness is only half of the brand's story. The other half is: "The Finest Underwear Ever Made."

Oh, wait. No it isn't. The other half of the Gilly Hicks pitch is more of a lifestyle appeal, namely: "You're 16, and you are therefore a walking-talking hormone engine, so why not visit our website, declare yourself at least 18 and watch our semi-soft-porn vignette? There are nipples involved!"

There is also a whole mess of other nudity, plus an implied liaison between a topless WASP mermaid and an altogether underwear-free beach boy with a butt carved from stone. Product showcase this isn't. No, it's an exercise in sexual fantasy -- one that should be completely transparent to the target generation reputed for being able to see through all manner of marketing come-ons. Furthermore ... Sydney? Does Abercrombie suppose that bit of marketing perjury won't be punished in the (excuse the expression) kangaroo court of public opinion?

Yes, that's exactly what Abercrombie supposes, because Abercrombie is right. The Venetian Hotel and Casino is in Las Vegas, not Venice, but gamblers still flock there to see the fake canals. Epcot France isn't France, but countless tourists have visited there for a romantic French Kissimmee. And Häagen-Dazs was born in the Bronx.

Marketing gimmicks don't have to be authentic -- merely plausible. Think Benihana of Tokyo and "The New Nixon." It's just a question of willing suspension of disbelief. And Gilly Hicks' targets will willingly suspend, because why wouldn't they? They've already embraced faded, faux prep as the uniform of a generation; naturally they'll buy "casual luxury" bras and boxers and panties that suggest sex appeal not in the tarted-up Victoria's Secret way but in the fashion of Exclusive-Private-School-Girls Gone Wild.

The question is, how we are to regard a marketer that is selling sexual fantasy to high school kids? (The company will declare its target is 18-plus, but pay no attention.) Obviously, there is already a cornucopia of sexual content readily available to the same audience. Just as obviously, the beach assignation portrayed in the GH video is tame, and almost sweet, in comparison to the sea of online porn. But crack is readily available, too. Does that mean McDonald's should be selling it?

Don't strain; the answer is "no." But perhaps that's not the answer in this case. Yes, casual sex among teenagers and young adults has many consequences, most of them bad -- from broken hearts to unwanted pregnancy to HIV. And without moralizing or living in denial, maybe we should be sad that the culture permits a major corporation to pander to adolescent sexuality.

Alas, that's the point. The Sydney fiction is a petty lie, but the normalization of casual sex is simply a reflection of the real world, where increasingly anything goes down under. We can wince all we want, but this is one the culture has decided for us.


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