Abercrombie and Fitch

Revised to include response from the Business Insider.

Until the latest nascent campaign against Abercrombie & Fitch took root, the retailer had suffered from a prolonged period of lousy sales (Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal) as youths flocked to hipper, fresher, and friendlier rivals such as H&M.

On May 3, however, Business Insider — a publication that includes sponsored news — reported on comments made by ANF CEO Mike Jeffries:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told [Salon.com]. “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.

Business Insider quoted ANF critic and author Robin Lewis:

“He doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people,” Lewis told Business Insider. “He doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.'”

Word spread via social media, and boycott threats ensued, but a few important facts got lost:

  • Jeffries made his remarks in 2006. Why such outrage seven years later?
  • Business Insider’s story might have been sponsored — if so, by whom?

Abercrombie has staged controversies before. For well over a decade, ANF has released catalogs featuring scantily-clad youths, firing up opponents to the sexualization of youth. Similar youth-marketing tactics by Jordache Jeans and Calvin Klein scandalized parents and earned fortunes for those designers in the early 1980s.

So Abercrombie could have sponsored the Business Insider story or fed the idea through backchannels to easily agitated critics, in the hope of fanning a fresh controversy and boosting sales. Or, a rival such as H&M could have done the same thing with the opposite intent: further depress ANF’s sales.

We contacted the author of the Business Insider article via Twitter. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Michael Airhart ‏@michaelairhart
@AshleyLutz Did anyone sponsor the A&F article of May 3 or suggest that it be written?
6:16 PM – 15 May 13

Ashley Lutz ‏@AshleyLutz
@michaelairhart what do you mean?

Ashley Lutz ‏@AshleyLutz
@michaelairhart It wasn’t pitched to me. Our editorial team came up with the idea when discussing the H&M news. I reached out to ANF.

Michael Airhart ‏@michaelairhart
@AshleyLutz Thanks. Did BI receive any sponsorship or compensation from ANF? Thanks again.

Ashley Lutz ‏@AshleyLutz
@michaelairhart no

Michael Airhart ‏@michaelairhart
@AshleyLutz Thanks for confirming, and so quickly too.

We didn’t ask whether an ANF “affiliate” (such as a PR firm) or a rival sponsored the story, or whether the author thinks a rival lurks behind any of the critics. Why didn’t we ask? Frankly, it’s not our job. (We’re an ex-gay watchdog, not a retail watchdog.) Whose job is it? That’s the responsibility of those who started the buzz over Abercrombie in the first place.

Social-media sharers, child advocates, and bloggers could have asked these questions on May 3. And they still can.

Before launching a boycott, it might be a good idea to know the identity and intentions of the source that inspired the plan.

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