Sexist Advertising from American Apparel

by | May 4, 2010
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Vandalized American Apparel Billboard

by E. Cain

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 the sexist advertising from 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.

They’re selling socks…I guess

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.


Editor’s Note:

If you’re interested in recent campaigns against American Apparel, here are some links:



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  • Jeremy

    These ads are not sexist. End of story. Now step away from the computer and come back to reality.

    • These ads are the EPITOME of sexist. They objectify girls, for those models do not appear to be adults, just to sell fricking socks and T-shirts. It not only offends common decency, it borders on child pornography.

      If this IS NOT sexist, then what, pray tell, IS? How does nudity sell clothes? In case you didn’t realize it, nudity is the opposite of being clothed and therefore seems a ridiculous medium for selling clothing.

      Is it because you regularly fap to these ads, Jeremy? Are you afraid that if AA is forced to change their strategy that you’d have to pay for your underage porn? Seriously, you need a firm slap upside the back of your head if you think this isn’t sexist of the first water.

      • anpony

        @ zswisdom

        That was possibly the worst response / argument I have seen in a long time. their models are obviously over 18, many actually are pornstars. No one has forced these models to take these pictures. And while yes the actual ads and the ideas behind them may be sexist, its undeniable that most advertising is as well. Victoria’s secret ads pop into my mind dramatically. Also Calvin Klein or Emporio Armani, featuring building sized pictures of David Beckham’s package. Also cleaning products ads, always aimed toward the house making wife who needs more help pleasing her husband and raising the kids etc.. And what about PETA, and their new campaigns featuring naked female celebrities selling their ideals.

        I think its sickening how sexist America really is even in this ‘post feminist’ era. But if you want to see Real sexism that should be worried about, go read or watch something involving Twilight. I can hardly think of anything more dangerous to the female youth of this generation.

        Sex sells, it sells everything. And it has done so for a very very very long time. Its also not going to change any time soon. And American Apparel has chosen edgy and overly sexual to be their public face. Can you condemn them for this? Only if you condemn almost every other company that does advertising.

        So stop being such an uptight prude.

  • Emi

    Stop trolling Jeremy. Get out your mum’s basement and go take a shower.

  • @anpony

    I’m hardly an uptight prude to point out that a company that prides itself on being progressive and forward-thinking uses such mundane and obviously sexist methods to advertise. Yes, sex DOES sell. That doesn’t mean it HAS to be used to sell. Especially sweat socks.

    Those models are not “obviously” over 18. To me, and many others, they appear in their early to mid teens and even IF they are all over 18, they are SUPPOSED to look pubescent and not mature. Most models ARE under 18 and I’d be willing to bet many of those girls are. What is your source for saying with such blatant assurance that all of them are over 18 and some are porn stars? How do you know?

    Of course, other companies use sex to sell their products or ideas, but just because a lot of people do a morally reprehensible thing doesn’t make it right. What’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right. Using YOUR reasoning, rape and the subjugation of women is A-OK because it’s been going on for ages and gobs of people do it. Sorry, skippy, that argument doesn’t wash. Using the bodies of teenage girls to sell socks and T-shirts is wrong. Period.

    BTW, PETA is a b*llshit organization that kills more than 95% of the animals it “rescues” and the majority of it’s profits are used for advertising and not saving or protecting animals. Also, Victoria’s Secret sells UNDERWEAR and their models are obviously adult women. Calvin Klein is guilty of the same crap AA is, just not to such a degree. CK uses male models as well as female models in sexually provocative poses. I’ve yet to see an AA ad with a nearly naked 15-yr old boy.

    Quit being so comfortable with your misogyny and male privilege.

  • ariel


    i completely agree with you. just because one points out a single company blatantly promoting the objectification of women, (especially VERY young-looking ones…) doesnt mean its a narrow point of view.

    and “prudish”?? really? that is a ridiculous word to associate with this topic, being as its pretty wrong to sell women’s bodies in order to sell clothes, as well as the word prudish carrying a pretty negative connotation…

  • mark

    how are these ads sexist?

    discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of the opposite sex

    that is the princeton definition feel free to look up your own.

    You feminists piss me off just because you are insecure about being fat and ugly you call everything that has smoking hot babes on it sexist.

    No nudity and the demale form are the opposite of sexism, if these women were forced to wear clothes because of their bodies that would be sexism.

    so before you shout sexism at everything that moves ask yourself “am I really that insecure?”

    now shut up and get back to the kitchen.

    Now thats sexism.

    • llllllllll

      Blatant troll.

      But just in case you actually believe that nonsense.. here’s some news, if that is all that feminism is, how come male feminists exist? Also, it actually takes a strong and secure women or any person to stand up for something they see is wrong and not just follow the herd or turn their head to it, despite the ignorant stigma that comes along with the label.

      Now shut up and get back to your sad life.

    • Liz

      bahahaha! That was cute! I like your picture, Mark. Pray tell, what is your age?

      The reason I ask is that the difference between where I draw the line of sexism and where you draw the line of sexism seems to be on our definition of the word.

      I have to attribute this to a lack of life experience. You see, the definition you so conveniently posted for us is exactly correct:

      “discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of the opposite sex”

      So, first, lets look at discriminatory:

      characterized by or showing prejudicial treatment, esp. as an indication of racial, religious, or sexual bias

      Basically, this means treating someone differently because of their ethnicity, religion, or gender.

      That is the premise of this post, this website, the feminist movement, women’s studies, and equality activists. Women are treated differently (with less innate value) in our culture, particularly by the media. You look like you are around a post-pubescent age, Mark. So, I daresay you’ve enjoyed porn before. Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with you exploring the nature of your sexuality, but the next time you are pursuing videos see if you notice a few things:

      1. The videos depict girls who are readily sexually available for the men in them and who are predominantly concerned with the pleasure of that men.

      2. The videos tend to be phallo-centric (phallo, as in phallic, as in referring to male genitalia). Sex starts with male pleasure and ends after he has finished. This is unrealistic and creates a general idea that women exist for the pleasure of men.

      3. The women are, most often, depicted as submissive to the men. The men are in control of their bodies and the bodies of the females. That sucks for, I think, obvious reasons.

      This brings me to “abusive:”

      1.using, containing, or characterized by harshly or coarsely insulting language.
      2.treating badly or injuriously; mistreating, esp. physically.
      3.wrongly used; corrupt:

      Abusive is a little more corrupt, but you seem to be sharp, and I think you can make the connection of how using the sexuality of women (almost exclusively) is insulting, treating women as a whole badly, and is wrong use of our sexualities. That is to say, our sexualities belong to us, and while some women are happy to exchange their sexuality for money, the widespread acceptance of the idea that our sexuality belongs to whoever wants it is prevalent and damaging.

      Also, you generalize feminists as being fat, ugly, and insecure. I don’t need to debunk this because you know how ridiculous it is to assume that a group containing hundreds of millions of men and women who support gender equality all look the same way and feel bad about it. Furthermore, I’m sure that you know not everyone finds the same thing to be attractive. Just ask your friends. And if they all like the same type of girls, next time you are searching porn, look up BBW.

      • Rashad

        Please do not condone the use of pornography. It is degrading and disgusting and the bane of feminism.

  • Dyllon

    Y’know, consider how this company does every other f-ing thing right when it comes to social issues, I’m willing to cut my loses on this one. Sorry women, but I’m willing to deal with seeing you objectified if it means no children have to die in order to make my clothes.

    • Dyllon


    • Greg

      Why not learn to make your own clothes. Knitting and sewing are not difficult skills to learn and organic wool and cotton fibers/fabrics are pretty readily available.

    • llllllllll

      Of course, because if AA stopped objectifying women and girls (and started using some actual creativity to promote their clothing) there’s just NO WAY they could continue to be worker friendly.. and children would definitely have to start dying in order for their business to continue! Of course. That’s the point here.

      And yes, if anything the majority of companies and advertisements and media in general use these tactics of gross objectification to sell nowadays.. but how the hell is that an argument that it is okay?

      At one time blatant racial hate used to be the norm and even expected, should those who saw that it was wrong have just accepted it, because everyone does it, it’s normal?

  • Sparklebat

    Is anyone asking what kind of empowerment the models are getting out of this? And I do not just mean monetarily, I mean actual empowerment, self esteem, courage, growth. Of course forcing women to behave a certain way or believe that they have to look a certain way is sexist. But we should not be defining an act or state of being as inherently wrong. Progress is not to define what these boundaries are but to transcend them, that’s what feminism and equality should mean.

    I find the idea that these advertisements are “morally reprehensible” completely absurd. Objectification is in the eye of the beholder, the women in these ads are only inferior if YOU are placing that label on them. Try to change your perspective and find the strength and pride, and yes, even sexual prowess in there, why shouldn’t that be something to be admired? Sustaining the taboo around sexuality is only feeding it power.

    How do we try to find equality in other matters? Open mindedness and acceptance. Have you ever seen a documentary on a controversial or even “evil” person? Been to a culture fair? On so many other matters we attempt to break barriers by demystifying the subject but we embrace censorship and vilification to deal with our own bodies and the fun, and may I remind you, critically necessary to the survival of humanity as a species, things we do with our bodies.

    • Sorry, but the “sexual object is empowering” argument fails because it ONLY allows those who conform to the societal norm of beauty to be empowered by being supposedly exhalted by the view of heterosexual men. When a man looks at those images, he doesn’t think those models are smart or wholesome or powerful or possessed of integrity. He sees them in the patriarchially accepted role of properly submissive horny slut…..the readily accessible sex object. That is hardly empowering. It merely reinforces male superiority and subjugates those girls further. It also feeds the rape culture by over-sexualizing children. Never are women shown as sexually POWERFUL in AA ads. They are always portrayed as sexually AVAILABLE. There is a difference between being sexually powerful and being at the beck and call of the sexual demands of another

      Oh, sure, a woman can convince herself that selling her image for the leering gaze of the public as an advertisement is empowering, but some women also convince themselves that a man only loves them if he beats them. Just because someone has convinced themselves of something doesn’t actually make it true.

      AA likes to laud itself as some socially responsible entity, yet it gives with one hand and takes with the other. AA could just as easily find a less exploitative and more original manner to hawk it’s wares.

      Yes, we as humans DO need to have sex to procreate. However, sex and gender shouldn’t be the defining factor of EVERYTHING nor used to sell EVERYTHING. Are the clothes so shoddy that their quality and value won’t make the sale? Doesn’t social responsibility extend to women as well? Many companies now use other, very successful approaches to advertisement that have NOTHING to do with sex.

      If AA wishes to pat itself on the back for being so dang socially responsible then they should extend the courtesy to the portion of the population that thinks it’s wrong to objectify children as sex objects to sex fricking sweat socks.

  • Liz

    (@ ZSMWISODM re: “Quit being so comfortable with your misogyny and male privilege.” LOVE that! :) I would love to see that on an AA t-shirt, rofl.)


    I stumbled upon this, and decided to send a rather polite letter to AA. Thought I’d share:

    Confused. . .

    Hello there, American Apparel creators, consumers, and eye brow-raisers!

    First, I’d like to start off by thanking the creators, employees, and supporters of American Apparel. I think that it is fantastic that you all are leading the movement towards responsible consumerism in efforts like taking care of your employees (paying a living wage PLUS bling bling-in medical benefits) and being a political symbol for immigration rights (WTF was that all about, Obama?). Not to mention your support of GLTG community, natural disaster relief, and organic products!! So, in short, w00t for 13 years strong in Los Angeles!

    Another thing that I really appreciate about your company is the fact that you use “real” people for your advertisements! The natural, no touch-ups look of your ads is a welcome change to the unrealistic, Barbie-esque trend that our culture has leaned on for so long. You models are beautiful, natural, and naked wear your line well.

    Ok, so this is where I am going with all the blither blather: it is great how socially and environmentally conscious you all are as a company. You are pioneers of our time, and show respect for many-a-cause. It is, therefore, striking to me that you all don’t seem to show such consideration for the F-word movement. (So sorry, that is Feminist Movement).

    And I get it! Sex sells, without a doubt! Where most corporations exploit… well.. practically every marginalized group for the sake of profits, you all seem to have drawn the line at the sexualization of (mostly only) women in the media.

    But that doesn’t make sense! Why would such a progressive, responsible company overlook a cause that affects such an enormous population? I’ve decided to consider the unlikely, preposterous idea that not everyone in the world (American Apparel, specifically) sees things exactly as I see them. Crazy, I know… but I’m really at the end of my rope here, so I’m putting my “the world revolved around me” mentality on hold for a moment to ask you this questions sincerely:

    Whats up with that sh*t?

    Now, be not intimidated by my use of the F-word (feminism…. in case you were thinking of the other, much less provocative F-word…). I know that we, as a group, have a bit of a bad reputation. After all, the radical notion of equality has never really been well received. But I promise that we, as a group, are not the man-hating crazy people that often come so readily to mind. In fact, we tend to ere on the side of loving men, even if all of us don’t like to F-word them (er.. the other F-word)

    Point being, in a culture where push up bra’s and thongs for 8 year old girls (who want to be.. sexy?) are almost acceptable and clothing ads look like porn (ahem…. I would just like to note that “How can I download photos from your ad archive” is in your top FAQ’s… just saying… ) it would be really great if us F-words had the support of such an awesome company!

    Now, before you answer, I’d just like to squeeze in there the fact that women, myself included, enjoy feeling sexy, looking at women who are sexy (regardless of sexual orientation), and buying clothes that are comfy-a-la-sexy. But, for me at least (and remember, the world tends to revolve around me), there is a line in the sand!

    On one side the sea-shell letters say something like “I feel like a sexually empowered Piranha ready to suck the stamina out of my lover(s).” Now, the other side is kind of blurry from so many corporate feet standing on it, but it says something like “hello underpaid bimbo’s– thanks for selling our sh*t and doing that thing you’re good at.. standing around looking pretty. Oh, and could you bed over a little more and turn this way, so we can see your nipples and ass? Thanks, doll.”

    The allure of the provocative and taboo is great in our puritan-based culture, but then again so is the allure of cold, hard cash at the expense of everyone else.

    So, my delectably brilliant and minority-friendly American Apparelers, why have you made such strong social-political stances on other major issues, but choose to “exploit” the sexuality of women (and men) in your advertisement? Clearly, there is a strong moral compass about your company, so what does it offer on the struggle of women in our culture and the ever-exhausting push to be perceived as something other than the playthings of (predominantly) men? I daresay the American Apparel sees the ads as provocative, sexy, but overall unharmful. Why?

    Also, what color socks are you wearing? :)

    All the best,

    • Liz, feel free to put that on a T-shirt. I already made one and wear it regularly, much to the chagrin of the local rednecks who are distracted by the text while trying to watch my boobage bounce. I figured if they were going to look, I’d give them something socially uplifting to read. It has caused as much confusion as the “I’m not here for your sexual satisfaction. I’m here for mine.” shirt.

      I also LOVELOVELOVE your letter to AA. You are so right about the line between feeling sexually empowered and being a sex object.

      As one Feminist to another…..rock on.

      • Liz

        I… I think I love you! :)

        ps.. did you hear about the God in Iceland? (I liked it)

    • Scout
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  • pauldw

    i’ve never met a man who thought that a girl was nothing other than a sex object just because he liked the way she looks

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  • Sophie

    I agree, AA ads are a bit over the top. But I still love their clothes. Also, for some reason photos make me feel less shy about my body and more free about it. Maybe this is unhealthy, but I have loved AA for years.

    • jarrahpenguin

      Hi Sophie. I think precisely what makes this whole thing even worse than it would otherwise be is that some of their clothes are really comfortable and they are doing some things that are socially responsible. Not at all trying to guilt people who like their clothes – just saying that people who do should speak up and say that they have a problem with AA claiming to be progressive when they’re doing this kind of sexist advertising. Not to mention some of their crazy, appearance-based hiring and promotions policies.

  • Late reply is late, but…

    There is always other ways to pose for the camera without displaying your body like you’re a wh*re and look sexy at the same time. ALWAYS.

    And you NEVER know if the models really, truly are comfortable with posing that way. Even if they are, they shouldn’t. This society is misogynistic enough as it is, they shouldn’t be making it worse.

    Needless to say, I despise American Apparel. Never shopped there, never will. I have a good friend that loves the place, and it really saddens me. Said friend is female as well.

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  • Michelle


    You completely missed the mark. They’re ads and the way their clothes are portrayed are very inappropriate and just awkward (at least, for a woman). I don’t want to walk down the street and see a fifteen-year-old girl’s bare body–besides high socks.

    I’m not insecure at all. I just don’t want to see private bits and naked people everywhere.

    Well, if you ever want to get-off, head to their website. They freely show nipples and all (even though the site also tries to advocate family-friendliness). And somehow it’s OK.

    Meanwhile, Victoria Secret gets lashed at for showing too much, and they’re not at all.

    Obviously, American Apparel is using a LOT of sex appeal to sell their clothes, rather than their actual clothes.

    And the way they exploit the models is ridiculous.
    Here’s another example.

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  • Nanci Merczel

    You don’t need half (or mostly naked!) female bodies to scream “sexist advertising!” alone! I see adds for mortgages and credit cards where either a really young girl is posing provocatively on a bed (for a credit card? Really?) or a woman with an over-sized big round butt is put front and center to catch men’s eyes so they’ll click (just saw this on the side of my computer….an add that had to do with motor vehicles)….using certain female faces(underage and pouty) and expressions and overly round and jutting-out body parts is all objectification of women as “things” and not “people” to sell products. This practice is actually using the female as a “product” herself…like a “lure”….Wait…didn’t women a generation older than us fight so hard against this very thing? What happened? But these American Apparel adds….how are they even legal?