American Apparel's insensitive campaign draws criticism
// Evelyn Cranston

When April Flores, plus-size porn star, asked an American Apparel (AA) representative if they had ever considered expanding their consumer base to larger women, she was hit back with, “that’s not our demographic.” AA, known for their American-made t-shirts, flashy gold tights, and affinity for soft-core, simply wasn’t interested in the buying power of plus-size hipsters.

At the time of this comment, AA was a thriving business, operating 281 stores and turning out large profits. Beginning in December of 2010, however, AA was faced with a possibility of bankruptcy: they were forced to close 13 underperforming stores, and had negative cash flows. According to the AA Fourth Quarter Financial Reports, there existed “substantial doubts as to whether the Company [would] be able to continue.” In 2009, the company had a net income of $1.1 million for the year, whereas 2010 saw a net loss of $86.3 million.

As well, Dov Charney, the company’s founder, was also dealing with the legal consequences of inappropriate behaviour toward his employees. In 2007, he was accused of threatening to fire a then-underage employee if she ever refused to, according to the New York Post, “send him nude pictures and texts, explain her sexual history in explicit detail, and have sex with him on her 18th birthday and repeatedly thereafter.” In 2004, he masturbated in front of a reporter, and has been called out numerous times for firing employees who don’t dress sexy enough to turn him on.

Something drastic needed to be done to save both the image of AA, the reputation of its founder, and the company itself. As a symbol of apology for their “exclusive to thin girls” approach to design, AA planned to give a plus sized woman a chance, while simultaneously getting themselves out of the bankruptcy hole they dug for themselves. With a financially unstable future and an image in jeopardy, AA turned to a highly hypocritical last-resort marketing campaign to boost their sales.

“The Next Big Thing” campaign called for “XLent, curvaceous, booty-ful” women who needed “extra wiggle room” to fill out AA’s sexy new XL line, and send in photos of themselves “and their junk” for an online voting contest. The winner would be flown to LA to model in a “bootylicious photoshoot.” In the fine print, it states that the winner will ultimately be chosen by the company rather than the popular online vote, the winner doesn’t get an actual modelling contract, and nor do they get paid for the photoshoot. The winner will, however, be awarded a new wardrobe of the XL line, and all contestants received a gift card for AA's online store.

Nancy Upton, a typical size 12 student, read the patronizing ad with disdain. AA had no qualms about describing their products as sexy, but the wording of the contest advertisement showed that they felt plus-sized women needed special, witty euphemisms for fat. Upton noted the fact that a "subservient, nearly naked woman has always earned a place in American Apparel’s advertising with no trouble, but that larger women need to vote each other down and compete against one another to even deserve a chance."

In the following days, Upton found herself bathing in ranch dressing and chocolate sauce, and imitating a roast pig by lying naked and greased up on a table with an apple in her mouth. It was a photoshoot meant to mock and critique the “Next Big Thing” campaign, and though meant only as a joke submission, Upton received the most online votes.

Although Upton clearly stated she had no intentions of working for AA in the case that she did win, it turned out that AA had no intention of offering her the opportunity anyway. Iris Alonzo, creative director at AA distributed a statement to Upton and a few major news outlets.

Alonzo open letter to Upton states, “It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that ‘bootylicous’ was too much for you to handle...We try not to take ourselves too seriously around here.”

Near the end of the letter, Alonzo casually, and unsurprisingly, mentioned that AA didn’t want her for their campaign. They decided instead to go with ten less controversial contestants who “truly exemplified beauty, inside and out.”

Upton shook the company and its rigid guidelines of beauty to the core with her brave and subversive photoshoot, and her actions continue to fuel a discussion on workers’ rights and sexist marketing. In the pop culture realm, an arena of impossible physical appearance, it’s staggering to see a courageous reflection of normalcy.

Upton, with her rebellious sense of self-confidence, desired a rethinking of what is deemed acceptable marketing and ethical company practises. Her stunt garnered enough attention that AA has offered to fly her to LA to tour their factory and have a dialogue with the creative director of the XL competition. Although she won't be on the next American Apparel billboard, the fact that her entry received the most votes shows that the very demographic American Apparel was targeting isn't really buying it.

// Evelyn Cranston
Staff Writer

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com