The following comments were made by Mike Jeffries, Abercrombie and Fitch CEO, in a 2006 interview with “Salon” but reemerged May 2013 after being published in a “Business Insider” article.
“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.” Jeffries said.
Apparently, I don’t belong in Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. It’s okay, I’m not offended. I accept Jeffries’s comments not because I never actually wear Abercrombie and Fitch clothing. I accept Jeffries’s comments not because I have long understood my role as a nerd. I accept Jeffries’ comments because they were made by Mike Jeffries, a CEO fighting for survival in the cutthroat world of business.
Don’t attack me for being pro-bullying and anti-diversity. I do not by any means support the principles outlined in Jeffries’s comments. His words remind us of the unfortunate fact that we live in a society where people put too much value on fitting into specific definitions of cool and attractive; however, Jeffries, or any other businessman for that matter, is not responsible for creating this shallow culture but rather is forced to work within it.
When marketing to consumers, Jeffries must exclude some people because of the “Snob Effect.” This term, coined by Economist Harvey Leibenstein, says if a product becomes too commonplace, consumers will cease to feel special by sporting that brand, so demand will plummet. This phenomenon is especially true for teenagers, who have a heightened desire to impress their peers. Jeffries, being the shrewd businessman that he is, learned to use this vulnerability to his advantage. His controversial comments simply describe how Abercrombie markets to a small group of people to make other teenagers crave their product.
So why do I care? One businessman made one comment that sparked one instance of unjustified controversy. Except it isn’t just one. People constantly attack companies they deem too harmful to the psyche especially when the customers are vulnerable teenagers, yet large scale change rarely actually occurs.
I had similar thoughts last year when teens specifically protested “Seventeen Magazine’s” use of airbrushing because it gives teenagers unrealistic views of beauty. Since the protest, “Seventeen” has stopped airbrushing. Since the protest, the use of airbrushing in almost every other magazine has continued.
The lack of effectiveness of the teen protests against “Seventeen” and Abercrombie stem from their narrow focus. “Seventeen” and Abercrombie didn’t decide that models had to be unrealistically gorgeous. “Seventeen “and Abercrombie didn’t decide that businesses would target certain people while excluding others. “Seventeen” and Abercrombie are just small parts of the larger business culture that gives customers what they want even if what they want is harmful.
What terrible person decided that business had to be so malicious? Well, I did. You did. Your friends did. We all did. We, the consumers, define the uncaring culture of businesses that target teenagers. True, these companies perpetuate the idea that only a small subset of people can be cool; however, we came up with that idea. True, these companies tend to portray beauty as a very specific set of characteristics; however, we helped decide those characteristics. These companies know they are just feeding our unhealthy desires, but they also know if they stop marketing, then we will stop buying.
Until there is a broader cultural shift towards increased acceptance of people of all shapes, sizes, and social status, businesses that cater to teens will understandably continue to market to us by giving us what we ask for. So what do we need to do to create that cultural shift? Stop protesting the companies. Start protesting the culture. Stop limiting beauty to a certain set of characteristics. Start realizing everyone is beautiful. This culture started with us. This culture can end with us.