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Abercrombie and Fitch: 2003-2014 Cool Kids Advertising Campaign 

Unethical Behavior and Communication

Authors: Elizabeth Korda and Cassidy Spearman 

Communication Law and Ethics: Winter 2020

Abstract

When the leader acts unethically, what will the state of the company reflect? In 2006, the Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) clothing company and CEO, Michael Jeffries, created an atmosphere of discord with their disparaging comments, and advertisements directed toward consumers. These unethical messages and standards were dispersed through media interviews with the CEO, social media, and A&F’s internal marketing team’s “Cool Kids” campaign. Their damaging actions reflect the communication practices that caused the decline in A&F reputation and stores. This case study looks at the company’s strategic communication practices from an ethical perspective. Findings show that due in great part to their communication choices, the company not only has suffered financial losses and decrease in clientele, but it has also received much negative attention from the media and alienated many of its consumer base.

Overview

Throughout this case study we will be examining the effect that A&F’s ‘cool kids’ campaign and Jeffries’ public statements had on the company and its consumers. It is important to understand and consider the expansive consequences of not abiding by company values and utilizing a single outdated perspective: while regarding the intended audience and reputation decline of an organization, which held so firmly to unethical advertising practices. A&F’s current mission statement says it is committed to “creating an accessible and inclusive environment [for customer communities] each and every time they interact with our brands,” (Abercrombie Corporate, 2020). However, past messages suggest something different.

Background

A&F

A&F is a clothing brand organization, which strived to categorize themselves as the cool brand in hopes to only appeal to cool, attractive teens (Rainer, 2016). In order to attract this crowd they have been known for playfully sexualizing their advertising, making this the symbolism behind what being popular may look like (Farfan, 2019).

Social, Political, or Industry Environment of A&F

Abercrombie was founded in 1892 by civil engineer and adventurer David T. Abercrombie who started with the selling of useful outdoor gadgets and gear such as compasses, canoes, and outdoor adventure attire (Shaer, 2014). Once this brand faded away, the name was sold to a new CEO, Leslie Wexner, who then hired Mike Jeffries to rebrand an aging clothing line for the youth (Shaer, 2014). This is when everything changed. Now, renamed Abercrombie and Fitch, Jeffries rebranded all avenues of this company. Going from an outdoor adventure store, to a sexualized ‘cool kids only’ store within a few years (Shaer, 2014).

 

During his tenure as CEO, Jeffries created an experience out of shopping at an Abercrombie store. Loud music blaring, dim lights, provocative photos with attractive half naked models, and attractive employees; it was the entire package, which allowed A&F to rocket off with their expensive clothing (Loccisano, 2014). The brand made clear attempts to ensure that only a certain type of consumer used its products. As Robin Lewis, an industry analyst quoted in a Business Insider interview explained while Abercrombie and Fitch sells XL and XXL sizes for men, women’s clothes only go to a size large, as part of the CEOs strategy to market to “the cool kids” which makes the brand  “purposefully ‘exclusionary’” (Lutz, 2013) (Appendix, Figure 2).

Rationale for the Case 

As the idea of “sex sells” became one of the most mainstream marketing tactics in the 2000’s (Rainer, 2016), Jeffries exploited this practice by emphasizing the exclusivity of Abercrombie & Fitch. The ‘cool kids’ campaign’ was the name for the culture the CEO was creating and promoting at Abercrombie & Fitch. The image it portrayed was of  the attractive (half-naked) all-American kid (Rainer, 2016) (See in Appendix, Figures 8, 9, 10, 12). This is the driving factor of the issue we present in this case study. Enforcing such ideals in advertising is the reason for the well-deserved backlash against Jeffries (Krashinsky, 2018). 

It has been recognized that being physically attractive is considered an asset in our society (Dion, Berscheid and Walster 1972). Jeffries was on board with the idea of physical attraction and sought to use it to his benefit: all without regard to the impact he may bring on the young boys and girls he targeted with in A&F’s advertisements. Although the consequence of advertising to teenagers does not directly affect him, it can affect those exposed greatly. Studies have shown that the images seen often strike up emotions and feelings within adolescents of self comparison and evaluation; whether this be on physical appearance or material possessions (Richins 1991, 1995). Because of the influential spirit young teenagers obtain, the sexualized advertising Jeffries thrived upon, negatively impacted their overall mental health (Ramesh, Ogden, 2002).    

Key info A&F Stakeholders

With A&F discriminating against many, their drop-in sales and revenue affected any and all stakeholders/shareholders involved in the company. It also affected the federal, state, and local government as they have control of business operations for A&F. Stakeholder and CEO, Michael Jeffries, has been affected by his own unethical behavior and has tarnished his reputation and company brand name. Shareholders of A&F will see a return in investment and stock worth. Lastly, US and International consumers will part ways with A&F leading to a continuing decline in profit for the company (Layton, 2018). While their intended audience are children ranging between 12-18, they target young minds to lure them into the ‘club’ Mike Jeffries has created. In which they would only be allowed in if one met Jeffries criteria of being a ‘cool kid’. The impact seen on A&F’s business was a direct correlation to their consumers not buying into this facade put on by Jeffries any longer. With these choices, the effect it had on employees was accounted for by many A&F stores being shut down around the world. 

A&F’s Size // A&F’s existing relationships and conflicts// Broad Goals of  A&F 

Abercrombie is a global organization that is very popular in many parts of the world. Worth about 2.3 billion dollars; “The corporate headquarters of Abercrombie and Fitch...spills across 500 acres of dense Ohio woodland, about fifteen miles from downtown Columbus” (Loccisano, 2014). For many reasons, there is a high demand for “Abercrombie, Hollister, and Abercrombie and Fitch brands” (Fashion Network, 2016). However, this year alone it has been announced that until A&F rebrand themselves completely and thoroughly, they’re “willing to walk away from any mall at this point" (Bloomberg, 2020). A news article posted in January of this year reports that in the last nine months, A&F has closed more than 500 stores in the past decade. With the closures that have happened, A&F have decided to focus on their brand and remodel themselves to fit the modern consumer. So far, the A&F’s relationship with their shareholders and investors has surprised many. Since 2014, when Michael Jeffries was dismissed, they have been prospering and making great efforts to keep themselves out of conflict and maintain good relationships with consumers and stake/shareholders. 

According to A&F company’s website, the organization has many goals to maintain and achieve. For example, first, they want to ensure that they “positively impact all their customers”; second, they want to “create lasting partnerships”; third, “increase associate engagement”; and fourth, “increase customer engagement” (Abercrombie and Fitch Corporate, Company Goals, 2020). Along with these, their core values have included and still include integrity, diversity, and transparency. 

A&F’s Communication Strategy 

So far, the company’s strategic communication endeavors have all come from an internal company team. A&F has marketing, communication, and advertising departments along with their fashion related employees. Of course, they also have their own models for their own self-launched ads. During their campaign, their strategy focused on featuring white, thin, and half naked models to represent “cool”. Despite their Diversity and Inclusion page stating that “differences are supported by a culture of inclusion” (Appendix, Figure 14) (Abercrombie and Fitch Corporate, 2008), they contradicted themselves in their advertising. They maintained their brand as exclusive in order to only target their intended “cool” audience. Even during their campaign, they claimed that they relied on their A&F Cares initiative set up by their Executive Diversity Council (EDC). The EDC was their main enforcer of their communication strategy, at that time. The EDC were required to: 

  • “Using social media to keep our associates highly engaged in the dialogue around why inclusion is a core element to business success.

  • Integrating diversity-related metrics and communications into documents reviewed by management in the ordinary course of business.

  • Drawing the correlation between inclusion and innovation during the Merchant Trainee orientation process.

  • Auditing individual stores on their recruiting strategies and compliance with diversity training.

  • Ensuring that the pool of secret shoppers is racially/ethnically diverse so that we can monitor the in-store experience by demographic group” (Abercrombie and Fitch Corporate, 2007). 

All of these principles were on their website during their ‘cool kids’ campaign and very little of it was enacted. A&F started taking their own communication strategy seriously after Michael Jeffries was let go.

Strategic Response

Objectives of the Campaign

The measurable objectives that stand in this case are the advertising campaigns and examples decided upon in A&F. These decisions and comments portrayed Abercrombie and Fitch to the public in a light of social dominance and condescendence. Their lack of inclusion, diversity and values are portrayed throughout campaign decisions; measurable through their advertising and comments made.

As stated above, CEO Mike Jeffries made it his mission to create an exclusive facade of Abercrombie and Fitch as a popularity contest for cool kids only. An interview with Mike Jefferies reveals his thought process on this matter as stated: “That's why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don't market to anyone other than that” (Lewis, 2006). Every advertising campaign launched, risked subjecting middle school and high school children ideas and values that were not uplifting, grounding, or inclusive. Mike Jefferies sought to understand and speak to the minds of young adolescents through his exclusive branding. Utilizing these campaign objectives, it enabled children to see -- and perceive it as normal behavior. An article written by Selina Guber explains that teenagers seek the acceptance of their peers to the extreme where they understand it as the key to their survival (Guber, 1987).  The photos released, statements quoted and employees hired are all examples of the foundation in which A&F stood on. Teenagers are much more influenced as they are forming new opinions and values daily throughout their adolescent life. As they feel this intense pressure to fit into societal norms, seeing advertising such as A&F will only steer them into the wrong mental space to live happily and freely (Gruber, 1987). This advertising subjects them to the conforming of their thoughts and ideals to match what Mike Jefferies is portraying what one must do in order to fit into the exclusive crowd. Teens are very preoccupied with their body image (Guber, 1987), which Jeffries recognized and preyed upon in his time as CEO and throughout this campaign.

Jeffries' definition of “cool” was heard loud and clear in A&F’s Cool Kids campaign. In one of the interviews he conducted about the campaign, he stated, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. 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. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don't alienate anybody, but you don't excite anybody, either" (Lewis, 2006). From his comment, it is obvious that Jeffries did not believe he was doing anything wrong, rather he thought he was acting in the best interests of the company and his brand. However, A&F’s and Jeffries' enforcement of exclusivity brought them tremendous and unwanted consequences. According to Charles Gulas, who wrote an article on the outcomes of idealized advertising imagery practices, humans, by nature, were made to self-evaluate themselves; all humans of all ages are capable of this self-evaluation and it is normally done when confronted with ideal imagery (Gulas, 2000). When it comes to including exclusivity within certain ideal advertising imageries, the social comparison among teenagers aged 12-19 heightened (Gulas, 2000) (See Figure 29 for the usual outcome of Gulas’ study efforts). A&F irresponsibly (unethically) formed their advertising to include whatever was “perfect” and “cool” and failed to realize the detriments.  

How did the organization respond to the challenge

In an article by Cosby Woodruff she quotes Kathleen Hessert, an expert of crisis communication concepts, who explains, “if you are not in a crisis, you are in a pre-crisis” (Woodruff p. 24, 2001). The problem with this idea is that Abercrombie and Fitch did not see an issue with their campaigns, therefore did not recognize they could be going into crisis any time soon. Hessert also states, “Every crisis goes away. How you make it go away is critical” (Woodruff, p. 23).  Despite this statement, A&F failed to approach this challenge in any manner. Without the action of accountability and taking responsibility for your wrongdoings in the eyes of your consumers, the eradication of this crisis led to the outcome needed of a drop in sales and a new CEO.   

 

Tactics of A&F Advertising and Campaign

One of the marketing tactics practiced by Michael Jeffries and A&F was using the company brand as a filter. According to John Hegarty, who spoke at an Account Planning Group (APG) conference in 2013, “Filters work both ways: we filter people based on whether they fit with the brand and consumers filter brands to see if they fit with the kind of person they are. Clever marketing positions the brand so that the filtering process is mutually beneficial: we're the right kind of brand for the right kind of person. The key is that the customer feels that they're the one in control of that choice. Telling customers that they can't join your club because they're too fat isn't generally the best way to do that” (Carter, 2013). With their campaign, A&F created this ‘cool kid’ culture and they thought this filter would suit their message and standards

Not only did they utilize the filter tactic to launch the “Cool Kid” campaign, they also severely sexualized their advertising images of “abtastic” shirtless men and severely underdressed women (Farfan, 2019) (Appendix, Figure 8 and Figure 25). The brand figured, if they had already filtered out everyone except the cool kids, then they might as well cater to the rest, who were supposed to be attractive, sexy and thin. Some of their advertising even included groups of half-naked teenages posing with models demonstrating skin on skin contact (Appendix, Figure 12).

Along with utilizing brand filtering and sexualizing the brand image, the aesthetic and setup of the stores was another tactic A&F managed to apply.  The smoke and mirrors tactic “is intended to make you believe that something is being done or is true, when it is not” (Cambridge English Dictionary, 2020). According to a business consultant in the retail industry, Barbara Farfan, “No matter if you dedicate your entire career to fashioning a brand image with slick marketing campaigns and manipulatively crafted in-store experiences, once the reality behind those smoke-and-mirror tactics is revealed, it's the genuine truth that resonates and sticks with consumers” (Farfan, 2019). At the time A&F and Jeffries thought it best to manipulate their “chosen” clients into buying and endorsing their product based on circular judgement. For example, if only the “hot” and “thin” were being marketed to, and they were coming into their “club”, then the “club” should suit their tastes. If the “club” suited their taste and looked and felt “cool”, they would buy overpriced, “cool” clothes. For many, loud music and dim lights was all that was needed to convince them to be a part of the A&F smoke and mirrors enterprise.

Outcomes

Existing Ethical Guidelines

As mentioned throughout this case study, the antics of A&F were unethical in many areas of business. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) code of ethics describes various “professional values to obtain: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness” (PRSA, Code of Ethics, 2020). Although CEO Mike Jeffries did have brutal honesty, while standing by his comments of the ideas behind targeting the cool kids, he lacked greatly in other areas. Lacking to include advocacy, loyalty and fairness, A&F did not present themselves as a well-rounded business seeking to bring together people to form a sense of togetherness. If anything it was the exact opposite; A&F, with Jeffries’ support pinned people against each other though exclusivity and knowingly marketed themselves in such a way that discouraged diversity and inclusion, two valuable ideals, which were also included in their mission statement at the time.  

To promote this type of mindset among young kids through fashion is terribly unethical and cannot be supported by the PRSA code of ethics stated above and the AAF (American Advertising Federation, 2020) principles. To be more specific, “Principle 5: Advertisers should treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience to whom the ads are directed and the nature of the product or service advertised” (AAF, 2020, Principle 5) (Apendix, Figure 5) . Nothing about A&F and Jeffries’ practice is fair and evenly distributed to various audiences. Consumers are not treated the same, as he only desires to have one type of consumer wearing his clothing.

Another key element in the AAF guidelines is how consistent transparency to maintain fair, honest and forthright relationships with consumers is vital to organizations (AAF, 2020, Preamble). It touches on doing what is right for your consumers which will then create better business for oneself. It is a transactional relationship that can be mutual beneficial. However, we see from this study this fair, honest and mutually beneficial relationship was not practiced at Abercrombie and Fitch (Appendix, Figure 3). We know this to be true, because of how there was a massive drop in revenue sales, and store closures all over the world.       

Analysis and Discussion

It is important to understand and consider the expansive consequences of not abiding by company values. Practicing a one sided perspective in regard to the market/consumers lead to the reputation decline of an organization due to holding a firm stance with unethical advertising practices. Abercrombie and Fitch self-contradicted themselves when permitting this sort of unethical communication in its campaigns. This problem existed because the organization assumed they attracted a certain clientele/culture, rather than considering how their position affected society and their overall reputation. The main encourager and perpetrator of these unethical practices was Michael Jeffries, the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch. 

After Jeffries joined the company in 1992, he misdirected the company down a rabbit hole of social irresponsibility. Not only did he encourage numerous campaigns, which directly hurt the company/consumers/investors, but he also used his influence and authority (through social media platforms, interviews, campaigns, etc.) to promote what he thought would attract the ‘right’ consumers; he took the word ‘cool’ and turned the phrase into something for the exclusively ‘right’ person. A&F promoted only one body type, one personality, and one look: only one was acceptable in the ‘cool kids’ realm, while the rest were slammed with disclusion (Appendix, Figure 2 and Figure 27). 

We learn from this case study how desperate consumers are to find the approval of society by their outward appearance and how some companies stoop so low as to profit off of that. This need to fit in drove the public and allowed Jeffries to create an opportunity for A&F, exploiting young models to playful nudity for company appeal. Any CEO’s decisions are meticulously planned, and, in this case, Jeffries was able to use this media planning as strategic manipulation to engage followers and enhance reputation (Ostrovsky-Berman, 2019). Mike Jeffries did a lot of damage with his communication strategy; a socially thoughtless act with many consequences. As he was dismissed in 2014, A&F is desperately trying to get back to where they stood before Jeffries stepped in and sexualized the brand.

This is the driving factor of the issue we present in this case study. Enforcing such ideals in advertising is the reason for the well-deserved backlash against Jeffries (Krashinsky, 2018).  This case is a compelling example of bad strategic communication and advertising practices because no good strategy was used and it destroyed the company /profits. Firstly, A&F’s communication strategy, at the time of the campaign (2003-2013), was extremely flawed. Secondly, Jeffries encouraged this kind of communication and he failed to think twice about the detriments and consequences. According to Charles Gulas, who wrote an article on the outcomes of idealized advertising imagery practices, humans, by nature, were made to self-evaluate themselves; all humans of all ages are capable of this self-evaluation and it is normally done when confronted with ideal imagery (Gulas, 2000). When it comes to including exclusivity within certain ideal advertising imageries, the social comparison among teenagers aged 12-19 heightened (Gulas, 2000). A&F irresponsibly (unethically) formed their advertising to include whatever was “perfect” and “cool” and failed to realize how it would affect their target audience. They failed to consider social exclusion, social comparison, and the negative effects of exclusivity on the young audience they were targeting (A&F in direct violation of Principle 5)(Appendix, Figure 5). Jeffries, also, had no problem sexualizing the brand. Not only were the consumers feeling left out, but most parents felt uncomfortable to allow their children to shop at A&F: because the brand was so sexualized (Macke, 2013) (all lewd images in the Appendix, Figures 8, 9, 10, 12, 25, 27).

The company’s facade was incredibly superficial. Everything was smoke and mirrors. The stores and employees always gave that “perfect” model and night “club” look and feel. Their mission statement overflowed with terms such as inclusion and diversity and relevant culture, however their advertising and communication did not portray the current generation’s (target audience) value for sexualized imagery or for including only one body type and one race in the model castings (Shaer, 2014). Most importantly, A&F contradicted their own mission statement and company values throughout their campaign (Compare with Appendix, Figures 13-24). 

A&F’s and Jeffries' enforcement of unethical behavior and communication brought them tremendous and unwanted consequences. If we have anything to glean from this case, as communication professionals, its that we need to be always be prepared for crisis communication, realize what our audience truly wants, cater our advertising campaigns to fit our audience’s age (cautious in what and how we advertise), consider how are objectives and tactics will influence our target audience and if they will even meet our intended goals, realize that it’s not worth it to ruin company reputation and consumer behavior over an outlook so outdated, etc. There is much more we can take away from this case, but the main point is that unethical behavior and communication will never suit anyone: not your company, consumers, investors, employees, etc.; no one.

Since 2014, A&F have tried to come back as a company and bring back their usual consumer traffic. In their recent February 2020 ad campaign, they are expending all their efforts to bring in paralympic athletes, soccer athlete celebrities, body positivity, and LGBTQ advocates (Lowe, 2020). As of 2015, Abercrombie and Fitch’s process on rebuilding their image has paid off. They have been successful in going beyond their intended goals. For example, in the last year alone, their shares reached over 11%, which is really good per shareholder (Reuters, 2019). So far, the A&F’s relationship with their shareholders and investors has surprised many. Since 2014, when Michael Jeffries was dismissed, they have been prospering and making great efforts to keep themselves out of conflict and maintain good relationships with consumers and stake/shareholders.

References
APPENDIX
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Figure 3: AAF statements

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Figure 4: Principle 1

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Figure 5: Principle 5

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Figure 6: Principle 8

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Figure 7: www.stylehasnosize.com Ad: A&F advertising and direct quote from CEO, Mike Jeffries.

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Figure 8: Abercrombie and Fitch Billboard

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Figure 9: Advertising Poster from 2013

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Figure 10: Abercrombie and Fitch Homepage Ad from 2009

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Figure 11: Abercrombie and Fitch’s Strategic Partners from 2009-2013

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Figure 12: 2010 Ad

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Figure 13: Diversity and Inclusion Website page from 2009

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Figure 14: Diversity and Inclusion Website page from 2008

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Figures 15-19: Diversity and Inclusion Website pages from 2014

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Figure 20-24: Diversity and Inclusion Pages from 2012

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Figure 25: Abercrombie and Fitch Homepage Ad from 2003

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Figure 26: 2006

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Figure 27: October 11, 2006 Peak of the Cool Kids Campaigning. 

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Figure 28: Quote from Gulas’ study outcomes