Sexy Sweats Without the Sweatshop

If there's one thing that every marketing and advertising pro retained from Business 101 class, it's that sex sells.

Dov Charney, CEO and founder of clothing manufacturer American Apparel, must have been taking notes that day.

Known for his anti-sweatshop, American-made brand, Charney is yet again getting heat for his provocative ad campaigns.

The ads are hard to miss, and even American Apparel makes it hard, dedicating an entire area of its Web site to a gallery of "Provocative Ads."

Most of the images feature scantily dressed young girls — even some who are topless — posed in positions that one can only assume they wouldn't want their grandmothers to see.

But one ad that has consumers and marketing experts doing double takes depicts a young woman — one critic described her as "pre-pubescent" — photographed from behind. Bent over, posterior in the air, long hair flowing, the girl is clad in American Apparel tights. Like many of her counterparts, she is young and topless.

The Lower Manhattan version of this ad was vandalized — someone scrawled, "Gee, I wonder why women get raped," across the billboard. Eventually, the ad was dismantled and replaced with a more family-friendly company ad.

American Apparel would not speak with ABCNEWS.com, but in past interviews with the media, Charney has stood behind his advertising techniques. He once told The New York Times that it was his way of recognizing "contemporary adult and sexual freedom."

Pornography or Smart Advertising?

While Charney may interpret his ads and billboards as smart marketing techniques, some say the images border on pedophilia and others even threaten to boycott the store altogether.

"The company has kind of built this reputation for advertising images using girls who look really young and are posing erotically," said Leslie Park, the editor of Racked.com, one of the blogs that covered the reaction to the Manhattan ad. "People are increasingly becoming outraged at the imagery."

"When you see Calvin Klein and Dolce and Gabbana ads, it's kind of a fantasy," said Park, who admits she shops at American Apparel on occasion. "But when you look at the American Apparel ads, it seems more realistic because they're using non-models and they might not airbrush all their faults. People really hate it. It makes them uncomfortable."

Charney, some say, has made a career out of making people uncomfortable. According to a 2007 interview with the Economist, four former employees filed lawsuits against Charney alleging sexual harassment. Three of the suits were settled and one is still pending. Charney even posted a video of himself in his underwear on the company's Web site.

In a 2005 interview with ABC News' "20/20," Charney defended himself against the accusations. "None of these plaintiffs are accusing me of having an intimate relationship with them," he said. "I've never had any intimate intentions with these women. I never propositioned them in any way."

Steve Hall, the editor of a marketing industry blog Adrants.com, told ABCNEWS.com that Charney's somewhat questionable reputation has become synonymous with his brand, adding that the provocative ads are nothing new and have been used by the company since its inception in 1997.

"When [consumers] think of American Apparel, they think of this guy — and then they see these girls and then [all] of them together," Hall said. "That's where it gets kind of creepy."

And many do seem to be turned off by the ads.

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