In a stunning piece of news-that-isn’t-new (or even news), it was recently revealed that Mike Jeffries, the CEO of clothing and lifestyle line Abercrombie & Fitch, confessed to working hard to associate his brand only with the cool kids at school. Although he seems to have gotten away with it for over seven years now, no story is ever fully dead on the internet. Last week, a recent publication quoted a comment Jeffries had made in a 2006 Salon piece by Benoit Denizet-Lewis. This time people paid attention to the fact that Jeffries had gone on record as saying that A&F does not want larger sized girls and women, or the un-cool, un-attractive and friendless to ever buy their clothes or shop in their stores. In fact, just to make sure, they don’t even make women’s sizes larger than 10.
Denizet-Lewis found this pretty appalling the first time around. Forbes speculates that it pushed more people’s buttons this time because things have changed. Citing the tremendous popularity of the recent soap ads that let average women know they’re not nearly as unattractive as they think, Davia Temin argues that Dove’s feel good collectivism is winning out over the mean girls and bully boys. These latter groups are sometimes referred to in middle school speak as Abercrombie zombies. Contributors to Urban Dictionary don’t all agree on what this means, but it’s definitely not a compliment. The most popular definition describes this variety of the undead as the “clones and mindless copies of one another who can’t think for themselves, so they shop at Abercrombie & Fitch in order to try and give meaning to their empty lives.” Critiques of mindless conformity among status-conscious kids aren’t really unique to this generation of course. And Jeffries’ biggest mistake wasn’t dissing the nerds, freaks, weirdos, geeks, dorks, losers, dweebs or any others who might qualify themselves with the word “alternative.” No, it was admitting openly that A&F is playing the game.
If you’ve ever attended an American high school, or more importantly, ever watched a movie set in an American high school, you know the score. The cool kids never cop to anything and certainly not to making an effort at it. At least since the 1980s, the high school movie—from Revenge of the Nerds to Heathers to Juno to Superbad—always takes the point of view of the outcast and misunderstood. Always. In the genre’s finest film, John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club, the ensemble cast that includes a brain, a princess, a criminal, an athlete, and a basket case, only has time for the cool kids once they ‘fess up to their own insecurities. Andrew the athlete (Emilio Estevez) admits to tormenting the weak to impress others; Claire the princess (Molly Ringwald) hates herself for going along with her friends all the time. And let’s not forget that Ringwald’s real star turn was in Pretty in Pink, where outcast girl is mistreated by cool guy until she and her outcast friends show him that he’s the real loser. And then they get together.
One might detect a contradiction here. After all, the uncool kids do want to be cool. Who doesn’t, really? Insecurities are the advertising industry’s stock in trade. This is why some think that Jeffries’ remarks may have revealed his business genius yet more fully. Surely he was channeling his inner-Don Draper when he told Salon that when you don’t alienate anybody, you don’t excite anyone either. In advertising, edgy is the new…edgy. As Denizet-Lewis wrote, “it’s not a normal day in America if someone isn’t suing (or boycotting, or “girlcotting”) Abercrombie & Fitch.” The only way advertisers have ever been able to find out what constitutes going “too far” is by going too far. Just this past week, major corporations have had to do the take-it-back two-step over ad campaigns that made light of race, rape, and suicide. Cool comes at a price, but it’s not much of a leap to think that it’s just another cost of doing business.