Sex May Sell, but Some Say Ads Go too Far

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 Price, 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 Price, 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."

But many don't seem to be turned off by the ads.

"It's kind of shocking," said Michael Natale, who edits a blog that writes about the East Village in New York City, where this particular ad was located. "But it still doesn't offend me."

Other posters felt differently, writing that the ads prompt them to "shy away" from the brand.

"I loved their anti-sweatshop stance and didn't mind paying a little more for a T-shirt knowing that they were not exploiting the people that made clothes," said Susan Heimbinder, a New Yorker who told ABCNEWS.com in an e-mail that she used to love the store, but now refuses to shop there. "However, my feelings began to shift after seeing another huge and explicit ad [in New York] with another woman [supposedly an employee] in a compromised position."

Since the first store opened in 2003, the Los Angeles-based company has gone international with 143 locations in 11 different countries and, according to The Economist, it boasted sales in 2006 that were estimated to be $300 million.

Sex Sells, but for How Long?

Attempting to make a brand unique, said Adrants.com's Hall, is a typical ploy. And while Charney may be capitalizing on sex to make money, other marketing experts said that his method could eventually backfire, much like it did for companies like Abercrombie and Fitch, which angered parents by publishing explicit catalogs that came in sealed packages, much like pornography magazines do.

"If you think about it from a perspective of a guy who is trying to sell his clothes, he took the cruelty-free approach, which would appeal to the animal rights PETA members, the vegetarians and the vegans," said Roberta Clarke, branding expert and marketing professor at the school of management at Boston University. "But that wasn't enough to attract attention, and sex sells."

"[Charney] is intent on getting the awareness with the billboards, but with some people the perception is that this guy is engaging in pedophilia by virtue by having fairly young girls in pornographic positions," said Clarke. "Yes there are freedoms, but there are also responsibilities. This seems irresponsible."

When the sex in ads goes too far, said Clarke, and offends too many people, that is usually the time when the "sex sells" rule is abandoned. Parents also play a big role in the success of companies, Clarke added. If parents start to reject American Apparel, it's likely Charney would have no choice but to reconsider his marketing plan.

But for now, American Apparel is still turning heads, garnering media attention and, well, critics — just what a company hoping to expand wants.

"The problem is that you can't [prosecute] bad taste," said Clarke. "So while a lot of people might find the ads offensive, they still take notice."

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