American Apparel aligns its brand with pornography more blatantly than any other retailer I can think of — and that's been the case for years. Take the ad above, which ran in 2007: I'm sure I don't need to point out the boobs, which aren't just there — lazily hanging around like lifeless props, as they do in some advertising — but are made titillating (sry) through the erotic act of undressing. That ad is all about the boobs, even though it's selling a vest. However you feel about American Apparel's porny ads (as well as the repeated sexual harassment allegations against the company's CEO and founder, Dov Charney), there's no denying that these campaigns have attracted a lot of attention and helped the brand secure its position as one of America's most ubiquitous clothing retailers. (By December 2010, AA had expanded to 273 locations.)
Although American Apparel's "sex sells" approach has helped the brand in many ways, the notoriety hasn't always worked to the company's advantage: Not everyone wants to buy clothing from a company whose image and, if by some accounts, company culture is rooted in the exploitation and objectification of women.
A slogan I saw at the American Apparel on east Houston Street last weekend seemingly acknowledged the squeamishness some people may feel about shopping there: "We may not be politically correct, but our ethics are good." The sentence (as I remember it) was plastered on the wall in giant block letters near the entrance. Although there's nothing more annoying than a person or a brand shrugging off legitimate concerns as "politically correct" minutia, I was struck by the accuracy of the slogan. American Apparel's advertising, brand and approach is ridiculous and offensive (again, setting aside the allegations against founder Charney, since we're talking about the business as a whole), but as a clothing company, AA operates in a fairly ethical way, especially compared to its fashion industry peers:
Manufacturing in the U.S.: According to the company, the average American Apparel factory worker earns $25,000 a year, which is not exactly a comfortable income, but is above the poverty line. (By comparison, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was recently raised to $68 a month, which means the average factory worker will take home $816 annually.)
Reasonable prices: You'll pay more for a dress at American Apparel than you would at Forever 21, but given the solid quality of most items and decent factory working conditions, the prices seem fair. (Compare this pair of sparkly American Apparel stockings, which go for $17, to this $1300 pair of Saint Laurent tights.)
Wearable basics: Although American Apparel is notorious for its bad 80s acid trip neon offerings — "American Apparel will make you look like a fat hooker," Jezebel proclaimed in a widely-read piece in 2008 — the bulk of the retailer's inventory is made up of seasonless staples: T-shirts, bodysuits, sweaters, simple skirts and dresses, all available in a wide variety of colors.
American Apparel is doing a lot of things right, so why hasn't its advertising advanced past the same boring porny bullshit the brand has been churning for years? Yes, the company made a couple of highly-publicized strides in a different direction (such as its plus-size model contest, which snubbed the real winner of the contest
for her satirical entry photos), but all in all, most American Apparel ads are just more of the same. (The photo pictured on the right is dated February 2014
and captioned, "Marissa wearing the Angeleno Jacket.")
And to make matters worse, the company apparently has no desire to pivot away from the easy sex stuff, even now that American Apparel has established itself as one of the country's biggest fashion brands. The retailer's Tumblr, for example, doesn't even restrain itself to posting nekkid brand advertising — a significant portion of the content is just unambiguous porn. Some selections (nsfw, of course): a woman performing oral sex, a man sucking on a woman's breast and fondling her genitals, more genital fondling. You get the point, I'm sure.
Of course, Tumblr's dirty little secret is that a big chunk of its traffic comes for the site's many porn blogs, so American Apparel is possibly just trying to fit in with the community. Still, it's depressing that they're not even trying. If the company really wants to persuade skeptics that its heart is in the right place, it might have to work harder to engage with its customers. Not all of us are so easily impressed by boobs.