Abercrombie and Fitch’s White Hot Sex Pitch

Add clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) to the growing number of companies who just don’t get it.

If you believe the shameless ANF spin machine, the company pulled its holiday catalog from stores to make space for a new perfume the company is launching.

“The reason we pulled the holiday issue from stores is because we just launched a new perfume called NOW and we had to make space on the counter for the product,” ANF spokesman Hampton Carney told CNN/Money on Tuesday.

“We put this holiday issue out earlier than usual, but it was still in our stores for six weeks. The quarterlies usually stay in stores for between six to eight weeks,” Carney added. “Honestly, we would have kept this issue in stores longer if we weren’t launching the perfume.”

This is straight out of Marketing 101 of course: take the holiday catalog out of stores during the actual holiday season. A more likely reason for the catalog being yanked is a storm protest from what the media traditionally calls “right-wing” family groups. Why all the hub bub over a clothing catalog?

In recent years, ANF has turned away from “traditional marketing” to sell their merchandise. The company’s catalog, which comes out four times a year, is more like an issue of Maxim than your mom’s Sears book. The “Christmas Field Guide,” which is the cause of the most recent controversy, contains partial nudity and various sexual tips, including advice on how to give oral sex in a movie theatre and a promise of “group sex” on the cover. Even “liberal” commentators I heard talk about the subject today laid waste to the company for putting out such an obviously distasteful catalog and then backpedaling when pressure was applied.

ANF’s catalog was the subject of protest in the past once before when Mother’s Against Drunk Driving accused the company of marketing alcohol towards underage drinkers by providing alcoholic drink recipes in its catalog. And ANF has other problems.

Last year, the company pulled a line of t-shirts from stores that contained racist imagery and quotations aimed at Asians.

“We personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt,” ANF spokesman Hampton Carney said at the time. “We’re very, very, very sorry. It’s never been our intention to offend anyone.”

Carney gets two thumbs up for taking the hit for ANF and looking like an idiot, which the company does just fine itself by offending the intelligence of anyone with half a brain. ANF’s racial problems don’t end with t-shirts.

ANF is the subject of at least two class action lawsuits which claim the company discriminates against non-whites in its hiring practices.

According to Shannon P. Duffy of The Legal Intelligencer, the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducted an investigation of ANF after a complaint was filed by a Latino man who was denied employment at the company.

“Evidence obtained during the course of the investigation revealed that Latinos and blacks, as a class, were denied permanent positions, denied assignments and treated in an unfair manner with regard to recruitment based on their race and national origin,” an EEOC letter attached to the most recent class action lawsuit reads.

The suit, Duffy also notes, contains photographs of ANF staffs at 18 stores around the country. Of the 167 people in the photos, there is only one African-American.

While ANF is innocent until proven otherwise, you are also free to draw your own conclusions – and that’s what ANF’s biggest problem is right now.

I’m certainly not a prude – using sex to sell is good marketing, when appropriate. But is it appropriate to use sex to sell when part of your target market is teenagers? This is one of those questions a lot of people would like to answer for the rest of society. I don’t believe “family” groups or politicians should, as I like to put it, “legislate morality.” To each his own, but as someone charged with the responsibility of, among other things, analyzing corporate actions, I can honestly say that I am absolutely bewildered by how ANF acts. The company simply doesn’t act in the best interest of its customers, employees or shareholders.

First and foremost, the company, in my mind, targets middle-class white teens and college students and no one else. Perhaps it’s just jaded perception on my part, but I see the company as marketing products and an image that are exclusive to a suburban white culture. If you want to limit your market, that’s fine, but we’ve seen how hip-hop culture has infiltrated mainstream culture and the financial rewards for those involved have been well worth any cry of dilution. It also makes ANF’s coming court fight against discrimination lawsuits a difficult challenge. In building a business, ANF has chosen to be exclusive instead of inclusive, and by doing so, the company threatens its own growth prospects.

Regarding ANF’s decision to yank its holiday catalog, again I question pulling something called the “Christmas Field Guide” off the shelves in late November. It’s my opinion that ANF caved to pressure and in doing so, showed what the company is collectively made of. Good executives, marketing and public relations people wouldn’t have allowed the catalog on the shelves in the first place, so that leads me to question the leadership at the company. ANF hasn’t exactly handled the PR on this issue well, avoiding returning some reporters’ phone calls and justifying putting out a product that features models, all of whom “are 18 and over.” That’s just a disturbing public comment.

I don’t know if ANF employs a PR strategy, but what I do know is that the last two times the company has been accused of doing something wrong, the spokesperson has explained the company’s actions by using the word “honestly.” Now honestly, are we supposed to believe that ANF is that stupid and didn’t realize selling racist t-shirts or glorifying questionable sexual actions wouldn’t cause controversy?

But controversy is apparently what ANF wants, and they’re getting plenty of it. By employing a marketing strategy that pushes the boundaries of good taste and then sticking a PR person out front to justify such actions with poorly worded excuses, ANF can drum up controversy and suck those suburban white kids into their stores every time. In theory, it’s a good strategy – ANF’s corporate goal should be to sell clothes and build shareholder value while providing customers with quality merchandise.

Whether ANF does any of that, I don’t know. The stock has been essentially flat all year, even as competitors’ stocks have risen. Twice today on financial news network CNBC I heard various commentators blast ANF and the end result was that ANF’s market capitalization – or the overall value of the company – fell by about $100 million.

So now ANF has to ask itself whether it’s all worth it. Can the company continue its current practices and be successful? Or will it change course and take a different road? Either way, ANF is proving that you don’t have to employ a good PR strategy, common sense or taste to sell clothes. But the biggest way ANF sells clothes is by selling an image. And right now, ANF’s image is just plain ugly.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.