A&F’S BLUE LANGUAGE HAS SOME SEEING RED, BUT RESULTS ARE GREEN
Byline: Lisa Lockwood / Vicki M. Young
NEW YORK — The Michigan Attorney General might not like the new Abercrombie & Fitch holiday catalog, but those jaded professionals on Wall Street and Madison Avenue beg to disagree: They think the company has hit a promotional home run.
“I’m going out right now to get one,” said Ellis Verdi, partner in DeVito/Verdi, a New York ad agency, a typical reaction among the advertising community.
About 350,000 catalogs have been printed, and they’re a hot commodity in more ways than one: In most markets, the publication has sold out, according to an A&F spokesman. Sources reported Monday that the company might even go back on press with the issue.
The A&F Quarterly magalog, a hybrid between a catalog and a magazine, is called “Naughty or Nice.” It costs $6 at A&F stores and contains sexually explicit language; references to oral sex and sadomasochism, and sex tips from a pornography star.
That’s nothing, A&F supporters argue, a teenager can’t hear in a rap song or read in any number of sexually charged lifestyle magazines battling it out on the newsstand.
As reported, the magalog, which the Michigan Attorney General charges is full of sexually explicit material that up until now was available to minors, will now require proper identification for people who want to buy it and appear to be under 18. A&F has decided to roll out these procedures to all A&F stores this week.
The magalog’s content is certainly getting its share of attention, with a blitz of TV coverage over the weekend.
Wall Street doesn’t seem to mind one bit — in stark contrast to the hammering it gave A&F stock a few weeks ago when the chain’s comp-store sales fell one percentage point short of projections. In fact, some Wall Streeters even suggest the company could actually hurt itself if it didn’t push the advertising edge, given its young, typically rebellious demographic.
But some researchers are cautioning that the issue could ultimately rile up conservative groups enough to cause the retailer big headaches, in the form of unwanted condemnation and organized boycotts.
How racy is it?
One page, entitled “Ebenezer Stooge,” carries an interview with comedic actor Andy Dick. When asked, “What keeps you motivated?,” he replies, “Blow jobs.” The actor then goes on to elaborate in explicit language.
There’s also some nudity, an interview with a pornography star and a Q&A with Santa Claus, who’s quoted as saying: “They let a pervert like me bounce little girls with pigtails on my lap all day long.”
A&F, which, after all, is trying to sell clothes with the publication, issued the following statement Monday: “We take great pains to make the Quarterlies as ‘editorial’ as possible, hiring talented writers and illustrators and using the finest photography available in fashion today. But make no mistake about it; this is adult stuff. And like other products that are geared to the adult market, we have gone to lengths to make sure that only they can buy it.
“Each Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly for sale in our stores is shrink-wrapped and carries the disclaimer that this is for those people ’18 years or older.’ Nonetheless, it seems some underage people have been able to purchase the quarterly, despite our efforts. Therefore, beginning next week and as soon as we can implement the plan, anyone buying the quarterly who looks anywhere near the age of 18 must produce a photo ID to complete the purchase. We are confident that this will end any confusion and insure the book gets into the hands of only those people for whom it is published.”
Advertising and media executives are a hard group to shock. They’ve been down this road before, having seen Benetton’s controversial and over-the-top images, in its own magalog no less, and Calvin Klein’s sexually suggestive ads featuring young models that were pulled several years ago after a Justice Department inquiry.
So the latest news that a photo I.D. will be required to purchase an A&F catalog raised a few hackles.
“Without having seen it, I just think it’s a little absurd when anyone can pick up an issue of Cosmo and read about the same things — how to please your man and sex tips,” said Ed Taussig, group creative director of Grey Advertising.
“I can easily see an issue of Cosmo with an interview with a porn star. I can’t believe there’s anything in it not accessible to a young audience — not in the music they hear. It’s an overreaction and great publicity for Abercrombie & Fitch. This kind of reaction plays perfectly into raising the awareness level. You don’t have to pick up an issue of Hustler to get sex anymore. It’s very mainstream.”
Asked if it was reminiscent of Calvin Klein’s controversial ads from 1995 and whether it would ultimately hurt A&F’s business, Grey’s Taussig said, “I didn’t see it hurt Calvin Klein’s business, did you? Sex is one of the prime marketing tools for fashion companies and A&F is obviously going about it in a different way. Every time you try to do something new, there’s a backlash, but now it’s been done.”
“Just like the Benetton ads, it was shocking, but nobody followed down that road. I don’t think others will follow A&F,” said Taussig.
Bob Guccione, Jr., editor in chief of Gear magazine, said, “I’ve seen a lot of the pictures Sam Shahid’s agency did. I think it’s absolute nonsense. I wish the Attorney General spent as much effort keeping guns away from children. No one shot a school with an A&F catalog.”
The magalog was created by Sam Shahid, owner of Shahid & Partners, A&F’s ad agency, and was photographed by Bruce Weber. The editorial was written by college students around the country.
Peter Arnell, chairman of AG Brand Consulting, said, “First of all, I should go out and buy five copies of the magalog. It’ll be a collectors’ item. Second, scarcity is the key to building value, and third, thank god for Sam and Bruce for continuing to do a brilliant job.”
“Anything that borders on censorship is frightening,” added Charles DeCaro, partner in Laspata/DeCaro.
“Kids know about it [sex] already. They don’t need to have someone slap them on the hands for reading it. I find it offensive. There’s so much everywhere on TV programs, the media, in theaters, and to single this out is just ridiculous,” added De Caro.
“Every one of them [the quarterlies] has bad language. It’s being honest. It’s how these people speak. It’s addressed to the college audience. They’re really part of this whole thing — college guys and girls. That’s what it’s aimed at,” said Shahid.
He pointed out that not only is the magalog shrink-wrapped, it contains a seal that says, “Editor’s Note: Due to the mature content, parental consent suggested for readers under 18.”
“It’s the same kind of warnings they have on music, TV and movies. It’s right there,” added Shahid. He said the magalog was sold not only in Abercrombie & Fitch stores, but Borders bookstores.
“It’s not different from Rolling Stone. The language is there. We’re not doing anything not there already,” he added.
Shahid said the magalog had nothing to do with Calvin Klein’s ads that got the designer in trouble with the Justice Department. “I’m not going to go there. It has nothing to do with that. We’re not showing 16-year-old nudes. The editorials are what people are talking about.”
To be sure, A&F keeps pushing the envelope, but the question remains, is it necessary?
Marcia Aaron, retail analyst at Deutsche Banc Alex.Brown, observed, “Pushing the limits is part of A&F’s personality. It’s not the first time A&F’s magalog has caused trouble.” Aaron was referring to an incident two years ago when MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, protested over the catalog’s content concerning alcohol.
“At the time that it happened, A&F’s comparable-store sales were robust. It doesn’t hurt their business when they get into trouble. One can debate the merits of [what they’re doing], but A&F is targeting customers who are at a rebellious age. For some customers it just means A&F has a cooler edge over other companies,” Aaron added.
Janet Joseph Kloppenburg, retail analyst at BancBoston, noted, “People have different ideas on the degrees of success when distinguishing on themes that speak to the Generation Xer. A&F doesn’t care if [their themes] offend other groups because the company’s focus is on capturing the loyalty of the 18-to-22-year-old customer.”
“How far can we go? How far car we take it without regard to other [age] groups? Certainly, A&F is pushing the limits,” she said.
Does it work?
“I think so,” Kloppenburg concluded adding, “Every time the magalog comes out, there’s a higher level of excitement among its targeted audience. It increases sales and [helps] drive the business.”
Richard Jaffe, retail analyst at PaineWebber, observed that A&F was the only retailer pushing the envelope as far as it has. “A&F has established an identity that’s racy and sexually charged.” With that identity set, he noted, it may be far riskier for the company to scale back on reinventing its advertising than to continue pushing forward on new ground.
One market researcher, who requested anonymity, called the marketing ploy “astounding.” He said, “Some time down the road, A&F will see a point of diminishing returns. The company didn’t need to go this route, but someone at the company probably made an advertising decision based on poor market research.”
Others noted that the flak A&F has been getting from parents suggests A&F may have one target customer in mind, when in reality the actual customer might be from a different age group. They said that A&F is popular among younger consumers because they want to be older, and because it’s “cool” among their older siblings.
Isabel Wolcott, founder and president of SmartGirl, a Web site that conducts surveys for teenagers, called the A&F approach a “marketing mistake.”
“While certain teens are interested in sex, we’ve seen a lot of young women who say they are overly offended by explicit sex in the media. It’s a strategy that might be successful if the company is targeting boys, but I think it’s a potential mistake if they want to keep the young girls, particularly when they could be turning off such a large proportion of their audience. We know that A&F is a top brand for many girls between the ages of 12 and 15.”
Doug Raymond, president of the Retail Advertising & Marketing Association, a division of the National Retail Federation, said he’s not aware of any official guidelines from either the Ad Council or National Advertising Review Board that govern good taste.
“The issue is what image a company wants for its brand. Marketers in a desperate attempt to capture consumers’ attention sometimes might be inclined to go for the outrageous,” he said. “It may garner attention on a short-term basis, but, if not conducted properly, may damage the brand in the long term.”