Ethics in Advertising: The Fall and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch

“It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Warren Buffet

A&F have been having a hard time of it lately, even if it is admittedly a little well-deserved. But are they just being made an example of?

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It all began last month, when an interview given to Salon magazine in 2006 with their CEO Mike Jeffries resurfaced on the internet. In the space of a couple of sentences, Jeffries managed to create a PR disaster with his comments about who their products are aimed at.

“Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

In this interview, he’s not just publicly acknowledging the hierarchy of beauty in society, but is admitting to actively aiming A&F products at the supposed beauty elite, encouraging the exclusion of anybody who is deemed to be not attractive enough.

What makes this approach so particularly repulsive however, is that they are targeting teenagers. We would all agree from experience that your teen years can already be incredibly awkward and painful, filled with issues about your self-esteem.

It didn’t take long for his comments to go viral, sending the internet into an uproar and kick-starting a stream of reactions, from the hypocrisy of Jeffries’ statement to all-out consumer activism, led by counter-campaigns like #FitchtheHomeless.

Blogger 'The Militant Baker' addresses the CEO directly with her own ad campaign

Blogger ‘The Militant Baker’ addresses the CEO directly with her own ad campaign

The internet responds to Jeffries' comments... (image source: buzzfeed)

The internet responds to Jeffries’ comments… (image source: buzzfeed)

#FitchtheHomeless  (image source: evansville.com)

#FitchtheHomeless (image source: evansville.com)

Despite their mistakes, I don’t believe A&F are any different from their competitor and numerous other retail giants. They’ve simply been caught off-guard and unfortunately for them, have become a scapegoat for what is an ever-present problem in the fashion industry as a whole. Other stores may not come out and say so, but if you think about the brand image associated with similar stores I’d bet you’d find the exact same target audience and exclusionary attitude.

Ethics in Advertising: Twitter

Nope, that’s not intentionally an oxymoron, although it can be easily mistaken for one.

There a number of subjects that can fall under this title, none more so than social media. Marketing and advertising are often at the forefront of boundary-pushing when it comes to challenging what society deems acceptable, and this has only become more common in recent years thanks to the emergence of social media and the power of the hashtag.

#fail: When Twitter Goes Wrong

There are plenty of examples of ‘hashtags fails’, and most of the time they can end up becoming a funny spoof version of the intended response. One example of this is Waitrose, who last year launched the trend #ishopatwaitrosebecause. Instead of comments about their ethical ranges and organic meat, the majority of tweets went along the lines of this…

#ishopatwaitrosebecause nowhere else can I hear the sentence ‘Orlando, put the papaya down!’

#ishopatwaitrosebecause Clarissa’s pony simply refuses to eat ASDA value straw

#ishopatwaitrosebecause buying food amongst the commonfolk tends to ruin one’s appetite

Sometimes however, the backlash can be a little more serious. Twitter has become a very powerful source for breaking news, and incidents such as the shooting of several film-goers in Aurora, Colo., during a Batman screening begin trending within minutes. Fashion retailer CelebBoutique jumped on the bandwagon with a spectacularly inappropriate tweet:

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CelebBoutique’s ill-advised tweet following the shootings in the USA

Their PR people quickly removed said tweet after being inundated with angry comments, and claimed that they were totally unaware of the shooting at the time of posting. There have, however, been other cases where hopping onto a trend with a bad taste tweet has been intentional, such as when President’s Choice (a Canadian supermarket) promoted their Halloween range using Hurricane Sandy:

marketing  advertising  ethics ads waitrose twitter blog tweet presidentschoice

President’s Choice taking advantage of the Hurricane Sandy trend

Another more recent example is the Boston bombings, where this unwise tweeter decided to promote a golf tournament:

marketing  advertising  ethics ads waitrose twitter blog tweet golf boston bostonmarathon bostonbombing

If we look at other channels used by companies worldwide to promote their products, we would quickly discover that they have several methods in place to check and double check everything that gets sent out to ensure it stays within the brand’s guidelines. When it comes to Twitter however, and social media in general, there often doesn’t seem to be much, if any, control over what is being sent out. An intern or inexperienced assistant at a huge global company can within minutes gain access to a corporate account and become responsible for that brand’s image on what is arguably the most powerful marketing channel available.

Should there be stricter controls put in place? You wouldn’t see a TV ad that uses a tragedy to their advantage, so why should Twitter be any different?