Does sex sell? Not for Abercrombie and American Apparel

Two of the most sexed-up fashion brands are moving away from bare skin and embracing social responsibility. Hallelujah.

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Photo credit, Calvin Klein.
When sexy was cool. Photo, Calvin Klein.

I never thought I’d say this, but I am starting to tire of washboard abs. The same goes for sideboob, underboob and all manner of chiselled butts. No matter where I look — from billboards to the targeted ads on Facebook — it seems like an oiled-up demigod is trying to entice me to buy thongs or probiotic yogurt. But while sex was once an advertising goldmine (remember Brooke Shields and her Calvins or Paris Hilton fellating a cheeseburger in a fast-food ad?), today skin-baring campaigns and suggestive tag lines are starting to feel boring, if not outright offensive. It’s official: consumers like myself are experiencing sex fatigue. And two of the most lusty brands, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel, are paying attention.

Photo credit, Abercrombie and Fitch.
The old Abercrombie. Photo, Abercrombie & Fitch.

Take Abercrombie: Under the direction of former CEO Mike Jeffries, the once-sluggish all-American clothing retailer became a sales juggernaut during the ’90s. It was the brand that sex built: the sales associates were impossibly toned (the boys often shirtless) and the marketing campaigns were heavy on ripped denim and ripped chests. But by 2013, not only was experiencing declining sales quarter after quarter, but customers had also turned their scrutiny on its beefcake-y packaging and superficial hiring guidelines.

In April of this year, months after Jeffries’s resignation, Abercrombie (along with sister brand Hollister) announced sweeping personnel and advertising changes, with the intent of creating a “friendlier” vibe. Gone are the topless in-store hunks, the nearly nude dudes on the store’s gift cards and the discriminatory “looks policy” for new employees.

So what changed? There’s been a seismic shift in the conversation around women’s bodies and body image in general. Customers are becoming less likely to fall victim to advertisers that exploit someone’s body to sell products.

American Apparel, one of the most egregious pedlars of straight-up ad-smut, also recently replaced its controversial executive, former CEO Dov Charney, amid declining revenues and allegations of sexual harassment. The company’s back catalogue of ads is an embarrassment of pervy riches: orgasm faces extol the virtues of AA tights [NSFW] and vacant-eyed Lolitas present their rear ends like hipster orangutans. It’s a brand strategy that has stopped working. When women are publicly speaking out about sexual abuse and rejecting shame-inducing weight stereotypes, images of barely legal models flashing their pubic hair feel tone deaf.

Photo credit, American Apparel.
The old American Apparel. Photo, American Apparel.

Lately though, American Apparel is showing signs of returning to its socially responsible roots. This summer, it will launch a blog centred on social issues such as LGBT rights and bullying. Its newest model still sports provocative pink PVC, but this time, he’s an adorable openly gay 15-year-old YouTube sensation named Brendan Jordan. (And he’s fully clothed.)

“American Apparel is a company that does the right thing,” CEO Paula Schneider said recently. “There’s a way to tell our story where it’s not offensive. It is an edgy brand, and it will continue to be an edgy brand.”

Photo credit, American Apparel.
American Apparel’s new model is 15-year-old YouTube star Brendan Jordan. Photo, American Apparel.

Sexualized marketing isn’t going to die out altogether — it’s still a highly effective tactic that allows advertisers to create an incredibly memorable link between one of humanity’s most basic desires (sex) and their merchandise (gold lamé unitards, etc.).

Not long ago, with the help of some sexy eye candy, advertisers convinced us that their jeans and perfumes would turn us into the kind of women people would trip over themselves to have sex with. But these days, we want products to turn us into the kinds of people we want to have sex with — tolerant people, people who are comfortable in their own skin. Maybe the new, radical sales campaigns will be ads with heart and, hopefully, fewer butts.