​Why American Apparel’s latest campaign misses the point

27 : 02 : 2018 Female Futures : Advertising
Back to Basics campaign by American Apparel Back to Basics campaign by American Apparel

While American Apparel is progressive in its hiring structure, it has stuck with more of the same when it comes to its advertising.

Daniela Walker, Foresight editor, The Future Laboratory

American Apparel is back. Following its acquisition by Canadian company Gildan Activewear in January 2017, it was unclear how the brand that was equally known for its lascivious marketing as it was for its ‘Made in America’ basics would be different. Based on its new campaign, it turns out, not much has changed.

The campaign, Back to Basics, aims to refamiliarise consumers with the brand and change the conversation that much maligned it in its later years. Under the purview of pervy CEO and founder Dov Charney, American Apparel ads were known to be NSFW, often featuring women posed in near nudity, with a hint of pubic hair, breast or butt on show. Many models looked under-age and the copy writing was shamelessly sexual. The ad strategy was part of the brand's rise to success as well as its downfall.

What is needed is in this day and age are brands that own up to how their advertising affects culture – and takes responsibility over the images they perpetuate.

Now, the company is making much of the fact that the new team responsible for the branding is all female. The campaign is apparently not about sexualising women, but about sexual women (and men). While definitely tamer than the most provocative AA ads of the past, there are still seductive looks and sexual poses. The difference? Empowerment, according to Sabina Webster, the head of brand marketing. In an interview with HypeBae, Webster explained that the brand still wanted to celebrate sexuality. ‘Being sexual is powerful. It is a choice. Being sexualised is not,’ she said. And while this is true, there doesn’t feel like that much of a difference between the new American Apparel and the old. Apparently, all the models posed themselves, and the men were posed in the same position as the women. So, there is one shot of a man, his legs spreadeagled in black AA shorts. But does that fact, and the fact that these ads were made by women, make them any less sexist?

Webster goes on to say in her interview: ‘Being sexualised implies a lack of control and a lack of choice. Now, we empower our models to express their sexuality in an empowered and appropriate way. How people perceive it we cannot control.’ But isn’t that the problem? In that caveat, Webster admits that the advertising could still be misconstrued. But it shirks that responsibility by claiming that it’s not up to the brand how people perceive its advertising – at least the ads were made with good intentions. But what is needed in this day and age are brands that own up to how their advertising affects culture – and take responsibility for the images they perpetuate. Rather than using empowerment as a shield for critique, companies must embed it in both their products and their brand culture. Bodywear company Tuxe, which is also staffed with all women and creates a line of fashion-forward body suits, is launching free performance coaching with every purchase, to empower women in the workplace beyond a tailored outfit.

And while American Apparel is progressive in its hiring structure, it has stuck with more of the same when it comes to its advertising. The ads do what many ads, from many brands, have done before them ­– use sex to sell. It is an unsurprising tactic, but it becomes problematic when so much promotion around the campaign is its empowerment factor. It not only feels tokenistic, but insincere. Whether the campaign is by women or not, it is not a progressive way to represent women that does anything but reduce them to their bodies. And we already have enough ads for that.

For more on the tone of voice and ways in which brands should approach women in marketing campaigns, see our newly launched vertical: Female Futures.