Trendy clothing company American Apparel has a lot going for it. For starters, it has a great concept – simple yet fashionable clothes, available in a wide variety of colours. Secondly, the brand practices corporate social responsibility, it produces sweatshop free clothes made in downtown LA. In addition, workers are paid well over minimum wage, given full benefits, subsidized English lessons are provided for immigrant employees (on company time) as well as year-round employment. This worker-friendly model is rare and distinguishes American Apparel from competitors.
With that being said, I feel compelled to write about American Apparel because I find it truly ironic that a company built on the principles of non-exploitation and social responsibility when it comes to workers rights, can be amongst the leaders in pushing the limits of social acceptability when it comes to depictions of women in consumer advertising.
American Apparel advertisements are easily recognizable based on their overtly sexual nature. They regularly feature women in provocative poses – lying in bed, legs spread, on all fours, from behind, bending over – trust me, they’ve done it all.
These racy advertisements render the company vulnerable to charges of exploitation and objectification of women. They epitomize the male gaze and are taken from the perspective of a heterosexual man looking at a woman who is (presumably) sexually available for him. In addition, the women depicted in the ads are selling themselves – body and sexuality – not clothes (hell, most of the time they are hardly wearing any clothes).
So I ask you, what distinguishes consumer advertising from pornography? Why are certain photographs – often described as explicit, raunchy and sexually charged – relegated to the dark corners of stores and the backs of the magazine racks when American Apparel advertising – often described using the same language – is blown up and plastered on billboards, buses and magazines?
What are the limits and when do we decide that a company has crossed them?
These are important questions and American Apparel –worker friendly policies, sexually explicit advertising and all – provides a very interesting case study.
If you’re interested in recent campaigns against American Apparel, here are some links:
- About-Face takes on AA in San Francisco
- NOW protests the “Search for the Best Bottom in the World” contest