Sex sells… not!

Fashion designers always intended to provoke and shock the public with their advertisements, but now organizations more often pay attention to ethical issues and reveal secret messages that might not even be there. Designers don’t mind the courtesy because at the end of the day the additional furor is more than just positive for them.

However, how far can one go in order to establish one’s reputation and to sell a product? Do we have any moral or legal limitations that prevent us from acting in a generally unacceptable way or is it just dismissed as artistic freedom so we can let out our creativity?

American Apparel is one of those brands that seem to have crossed the limits, at least for the British. Its website campaign running a series of eight ads that featured semi-naked women in their twenties was halted by the Advertising Standards Authority(ASA) in the United Kingdom in 2011 after receiving complaints that it is “pornographic and exploitative”. The ad could furthermore be found in Crack, a free lifestyle magazine and showed young girls in various provocative poses, some of them were topless.

Critics not only considered the campaign as offensive, but also exploitative of women and inappropriate because they sexualized young women. This controversy focuses on both, aesthetics and women’s rights. But what is right and what is wrong? Well, that’s not a question to answer like that!

American Apparel rejected the accusations and defended the images claiming that they featured “real, non- airbrushed, everyday people” who weren’t professional models for the main part. In fact, it is not the first time that American Apparel had to justify itself for running controversial ads. Back in 2009, it struggled with a similar issue, but apparently it hasn’t learned from previous mistakes.

American Apparel argues instead that this sort of photos is just normal and typical of what twenty-something year old women regularly post on their social network profiles and share with friends. This sounds like an excuse to me and is actually ridiculous or when was the last time that one of your real, non-airbrushed friends posted a picture of herself on Facebook or Twitter which shows her and a similarly good-looking friend lolling in an unmade bed with a wanton look in their eyes and both of them nude but for thigh-high socks? Ok, maybe now you think that there’s nothing to it and to be honest I hit on a similar photo on Facebook before but it turned out to be an accident and was immediately deleted.

So where is the line between consumer advertising and pornography? Can we say that American Apparel is doing mere business and pursuing marketing goals when we are confronted with women lying in bed, spread-eagled, on all fours, from behind or bending over? Do we have to sacrifice our body for a company’s success? Is that the cost that we have to bear? And why are photographs with suggestive and sexually charged content relegated to the rearmost corners of stores and the backs of magazines and usually not available for minors while American Apparel plasters billboards, buses and subway stations with their advertising campaigns that are ambiguous or actually explicit with regards to their statement.

“Sex sells!” is a well-known slogan and a driving for force for many businesses that have become successful by following this strategy. Examples can easily be detected in the music and movie industry and of course in the world of fashion. But sex does not always sell when there is more than just nudity and sexuality to sell. The ASA argues that the nudity in American Apparel’s ads was “gratuitous” because most of the clothes modeled were not lingerie but outer garments. Moreover, it doesn’t require special schooling to notice that the knickers, socks and sweaters modeled by young women are not the focal point of the photographs when breasts and buttocks are exposed. The list of examples is endless. A woman exposing her breasts with her arms folded in the neck or a model climbing a tree with nothing on but a sweater.

Does this approach towards marketing really increase sales?

It would if the company’s single aim was to crave for attention which it also is. Marketing morality and the rise and fall of American Apparel are linked in one way or another. It started full of promise and in 2008 the company’s revenues skyrocketed with shares that cost $14. The Observer named it label of the year and the CEO,Dov Charney, was among the Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. Nevertheless, in the past two years American Apparel didn’t make good headlines and rumors came up that the clothing chain could soon close its factories. From rumor to reality, in 2010 American Apparel was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy with shares that were lower than one dollar.

Obviously the sex sells-strategy didn’t work out as expected and was rather a pitiful attempt to remain relevant. Courting controversy is what they do best. The try to make us understand that $35 for a plain white t-shirt is reasonable, that the provocative images are used to emphasize the hipness of the brand and that the women are relaxed in their expression and definitely not treated in an exploitative manner.

It is difficult to judge whether the women are viewed as sexual objects or whether their sexuality is commercialized, but the images speak for themselves. There is something voyeuristic and amateurish to the quality of the photos, though, and therefore the impression of homemade pornography comes up. It is the realness of the images that is so striking, many of them could have been taken out of a private photo album. The location, for example an unmade bed in a shabby hotel room, the lighting and how the photographs are taken, maybe from above which can be viewed as sexual domination, and additional text like “Meet Steffi” contribute to the amateurish quality of the pictures and the assumption that it’s exploitative of women.This somehow contradicts American Apparel’s ideology of practicing corporate social responsibility, producing sweatshop free clothes in L.A., paying workers over minimum wage with full benefits and providing year-round employment. Since the fashion industry is known for a certain form of sexual exploitation and American Apparel supports it, it also seems that they parody it.

I think it all depends on finding the right product, the right tone and the right target group in a proper place and time. American Apparel’s ads remind me of the heroin-chic era in the 90s propagated by Kate Moss, the enfant terrible of fashion back then. But she has grown up and so should American Apparel do.

Abercombie & Fitch plays with sex, too, but on a different level. The quality of the photos is more clean-cut and the models look like models. How long the concept of young guys with a bare torso selling the products to customers will work is questionable.

In 2001 Kylie Minogue was riding a mechanical bull for the Agent Provocateur lingerie campaign. It was a mixture of eroticism and celebrity and yet it was voted the best cinema commercial of all time.

French Connection’s FCUK-campaign caused outrage more than a decade ago, but couldn’t be banned by the ASA.

So here we have examples where it worked out, still there is a variety of brands that wasn’t that lucky.

In the 90s Benetton ran a campaign photographed by Oliviero Toscani that was off-limits. One of the images displayed a priest kissing a nun.

A similar effect had the posterior Unhate campaign. The picture that showed the Pope kissing the Imam was forbidden.

Diesel is probably the most recent case. Its Be Stupid campaign was also banned by the ASA in the United Kingdom just like American Apparel because it encouraged people to behave imprudently.

It is sad that the campaign had such a short lifespan although it was quite innovative and conspicuous. Marlboro has launched a similar campaign this year that works the same way as Diesel’s ad campaign did. The mantra is “Don’t be a Maybe. Be Marlboro!”. This ad is all about making decisions and embracing the spirit of adventure. It is curious that this campaign hasn’t been stopped yet because slogans like “Maybe never learned to fly” or “Maybe never fell in love” could be considered as irresponsible. Maybe it just a matter of time until this campaign will be eventually banned.

So much potential in this campaigns but so little time to discover it. American Apparel overshot the mark but the public needs controversial ads. They need to be discussed and shouldn’t disappear from our urban landscape.

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6 Responses to Sex sells… not!

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog post a lot since you discussed a topic that I have been aware of for a long time. I have seen many of the adds you mentioned in your text and my initial reaction was as negative as yours. I fully agree with your critisism on American Apparel and especially liked how you retorted their statement about the plainness of the photos by saying:

    “This sounds like an excuse to me and is actually ridiculous or when was the last time that one of your real, non-airbrushed friends posted a picture of herself on Facebook or Twitter which shows her and a similarly good-looking friend lolling in an unmade bed with a wanton look in their eyes and both of them nude but for thigh-high socks?”

    Very witty and appropriate choice of words! Your blogpost dealt with the highly controverse topic Sex in Marketin and included important aspects of consumer advertising vs pornography, CSR and measurements against unjustifiable campaigns.

    The pictures you used were great and I think everyone has seen at least one of those examples as a banner on the streets. The only thing that I would recommend is rethinking the arrangement of the pictures. The different sizes make is a bit hard to follow the text flow. Other than that an excellent blogpost! I look forward to reading more from you!

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  4. katharinakueppers says:

    Absolutely love the title. No kidding!
    It is so smart, everybody knows ‘sex sells’, but you turned it around and showed us that this doesn’t always have to be the case. Also all the pictures are very demonstrative, they really fullfill their purpose, you chose the wisely!
    And because of them it was very comportable to read, I mean sometimes it’s hard to imagine what is ment with words, but since you portayed everything you wrote about with pictures I got a very clear understanding of what you wanted to say. Further I enjoyed it, because I know at least the Marlboro campaign, but actually never thought, that it could be provocative and maybe even banned. But then again thinking about it, you can interprete that advertisement in a way which would justify a banishment. I never thought about just seemingly normal advertisement in this way, but I’ll look at it with a more critcal mindset from now on! Thank you for opening my eyes!

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