By Ian Tingen
If you’ve been watching the news recently, you might have noticed that Abercrombie and Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries has a habit of saying things that make headlines. Essentially, Jeffries doesn’t want A&F to be for poor, ugly, unpopular people: he wants his brand on the lithe, privileged, sunkissed bodies of afflulent white children. I don’t know about you, but my social media was lit up with all sorts of opinions, from those defending statements like “Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” as brilliant branding to those asking for a bit of social awareness tempering the pure pursuit of pretty kids’ dollars. (Or is it the kids’ parents dollars?)
No matter what your opinion on the topic, we live in a (relatively) free market with (relatively) free speech. As it turns out, some people have gotten creative with reappropriating the A&F brand. Take Greg Karber, for example. His video started going viral today:
I must admit, on first view, the video tickled the basest parts of my punk-snark soul. There’s lots for me to like in the vid; it has the elements of David vs. Goliath, it’s a pointed criticism of A&F’s active neglect of those in need and Karber is a local guy. The video is a manifestation of my gut reaction to Jeffries’ comments: both the social commentator and marketing student in me want to slap him silly.
With a bit of reflection, I lost some of my enchantment. Skid Row (the site where Karber chose to donate A&F clothes to homeless people) is a hell of a sight. If you ever want to see what needy people in America look like, visit there. It will impact you. As I watched the video a third and fourth time, I came to realize that the homeless beneficiaries of Karber’s gifts were a kind of a human punchline. In order for Karber’s rebranding to work, we have to overlook that the main driver of the re-brand are actual suffering people.
At this point, my brain went into a stalemate with itself.
I knew that I disagreed with A&F’s branding and the social message it sends – even though every company has the right to do business as it sees fit. On an individual level, I don’t have to shop there, but I know that won’t do a damn thing to A&F’s bottom line. I do believe that sometimes, companies need to be reminded that there’s more to life than a bottom line, and as such usually laud attempts to rebrand and culturejam those that might need a bit of pressure to do the right thing. Then again, Karber is essentially using the image and powerlessness of needy people to try to effect change. My Facebook feed reflected this conundrum – some people noted that this was exploitation, and more than clothes, homeless people need medical care, food, and housing. Others eagerly reshared the link, telling Jefferies to do any of a number of things to himself, none of which sounded particularly pleasant.
In the end, I decided that what Kerber was doing was a good thing, and deserves attention and praise. Three reasons why:
First, I came to the conclusion that (in this instance), I don’t particularly mind Kerber’s oversight. I don’t think it was intended, and what’s more, he is doing more for the homeless than A&F ever will. Second, even if Kerber’s take is a bit misguided, he’s still doing something. Other people took to Facebook, or to their blogs (heh) – Kerber had the huevos to get up there and not let Jeffries’ asinine comments slide. Third, the unintended harm caused by one man’s activism is far far less than the damage of A&F’s active insistence on not helping those around them, especially when all it would require from the company is a little human decency.
Essentially, we need to remember the scale of things here: Karber is one man trying to make a difference and shed some light on some rather vile things. A&F is a massive company who even brands their do-goodery with their lily beauty standards. I know who I’m rooting for. Bravo, Mr. Kerber, for putting yourself out there, and for taking on the big guy. We need more proactive people like you. Let me know if there’s any way that I can help.
- How A CEO Can Wreck A Brand In One Interview: Lessons From Abercrombie & Fitch Vs. Dove (forbes.com)
- Abercrombie and Fitch-Epic Fail (tracipanzica.wordpress.com)