Sex no longer sells for American Apparel – but focusing on ethics might

A recent study of consumer reactions to American Apparel’s sexualised ad campaigns has discovered that the company’s controversial approach is likely to be doing it more harm than good.

Writing in the Journal of Global Fashion Marketing, Su Yun Bae and colleagues examined consumer reactions to ads posted by American Apparel (AA) on their own Facebook page. To provide a comparison, the researchers also looked at responses to ads posted on the Facebook page of another company also known for its controversial campaigns, Dolce & Gabbana.

Instead of being a turn-on, the study found that many consumers thought the AA ads a distinct turn-off. Facebook users regularly posted negative comments about the ads, using words like ‘cheap’, ‘sleazy’ and ‘objectifying’. They also expressed concern about the effect such images might have on young people. In addition, many potential customers thought AA’s approach to advertising ‘boring’; others stated they were unlikely to buy the company’s clothing because they didn’t want to be associated with a ‘trashy’ brand.

‘It seems that AA’s method is suboptimal in appealing to consumers to ultimately enhance brand loyalty and increase profitability,’ the authors conclude bluntly.

By way of comparison, consumers did not seem to object in the same way to Dolce & Gabbana’s continued portrayal of women as equally sexually objectified ‘sexy housewives’. “AA’s sexual objectification appears to be much more risky and dangerous than D&G’s stereotyped gender roles and objectification of women,” they conclude.

So what next for the troubled fashion chain, whose stock price has recently plummeted? The researchers suggest that the time may now have come for AA to change tactics. They recommend that AA drop the sexualised ads in favour of promoting their clothes in a non-sexualised way or by focusing on the company’s popular and well-regarded ‘Made in America’ and ‘sweatshop-free’ ethical claims.

They write: “Considering the brand’s financial struggles and media criticism, it would seem to be wise for AA to cease its inappropriate marketing campaigns and focus on ethical marketing claims. It is perhaps time for the company to consider its social responsibility role from both an ideological (e.g. AA’s sweatshop-free claims) and a utilitarian ethical viewpoint (e.g. financial productivity through ethical claims and brand reputation) in order to balance corporate social responsibility and profitability.”

This article is a fascinating insight into what appears to be a clear disconnect between a company’s marketing approach and the views of a large part of its target market. It’s also a reminder of how women’s bodies continue to be objectified in the media in the name of increasing sales – but perhaps not for much longer in the case of AA.

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