Saturday, 31 March 2012

American Appeal...

Hello Friends.

A note for the class before we start. This is a piece a long time in the making, and I'm incredibly grateful to the contributors herein. That said, some of the images I link in here contain what could be considered adult content. If you're sensitive to such things or reading this at a children's library, maybe don't click on through. Also please note that all the advertisements cited here were readily available to anyone from the company's own website. Okay? Fair warning. Here we go.

I'm conflicted about my underpants. As a frugal man who enjoys a pop of colour, I often take advantage of the cheap briefs sale that is always going on at American Apparel. At the store nearest to me, the briefs hangs off of pegs on white press board, and the colourful spectrum of the same utilitarian design makes me think I can buy dink-holders to suit my every mood. "Peach! Mint! Midnight blue!" I exclaim, plonk down some cash, and head out the door.

When I try to picture my nearest American Apparel store, no one image is particularly resonant. Most locations I've visited are white boxes with white walls and white mannequins designed, I suppose, to evoke the same feelings I have while buying underwear ("The design is all the same, but the colour I choose expresses my individuality!"). The sales associates seem like an unhappy collective of waif-like girls with limp hair and fey, slight men in high-waist slacks. This is a look cultivated by a retailer in support of a brand, just like The Gap, Victoria's Secret, Old Navy, Walmart. I understand that, I have no problem with it. But then if I leave the store and pass some billboards downtown, if I take the subway home and glance at the ads as I pull into the station, if I grab one of the daily free papers, inevitably I see an ad like this one. I don't understand this. I have a problem with it.

Dream: Figure out what's going on with these American Apparel ads.

Goal: Achievable. Like everyone I know, I think I am immune to advertising. Just doesn't work on me, you guys. Don't even care about ads, I'm too smart for that. Boom.

Of course I'm being facetious, but I do hope I'm at least somewhat media literate. I write copy for a living now; I see the inherent manipulation first-hand. I've watched those Jean Kilbourne Killing Us Softly films about the misrepresentation of women in advertising. I feel like I can spot the airbrushed face, the photoshopped bum, the enhanced breasts, and therefore understand, to some degree, the lies being fed to me in support of a product.

So what's so different about Shorts here, and the other ads of that ilk? On the face of it, the models in these ads seem less airbrushed, photoshopped, or enhanced. They don't appear to be slathered in make-up, placed on some fancy set, lit with the most flattering light, perfectly toned, taut, framed, and shot. So print ads like these should be lauded, not criticized. I can hear ad executives now, "You complain when we use trickery to make them unreal fantasies, like Victoria's Secret. You complain when we point and shoot a more 'normal' girl. Is there no way to win with you people?" Maybe not. But something worms into my brain with shots like Shorts, something that gets into my guts and makes me feel uneasy. But why? How are they doing this?

Plan: Reach out to smarter, funnier, and more fashion-conscious people than me, and ask them. You might notice the opinions I solicited came from women, and women are the subject (or object, depending on your perspective) of the print ads I reference here. This is both because the ads provoke the side of me which is feminine and feminist, and also because men are simply not featured nearly as much as women in the campaigns. A long scroll through the advertising section of American Apparel's website provided only this guy and these guys. Call me crazy, but like a drink special on a Thursday, I feel like this one's for the ladies.

L and G are among my most fashionable friends. L is a fashion school graduate who can pick three seemingly disparate items off the rack at a store and assemble an amazing outfit. She is keenly aware of fashion trends and target demographics, and is working on launching her own line within the year. G is a designer's dream and the perfect coat-hanger. Beautiful and perfectly-proportioned to fit nearly anything, she cleans up real nice and can pick an outfit off the rack or runway and carry it off with style. I met both for breakfast, grabbed a newspaper, flipped to the back page, pointed to Shorts and said, "What the hell is going on here?'

"It's sick, these ads are sick!" G said, familiar with not only Shorts, but the ubiquitous posters and billboards all over the city. "It's like they find these girls, take half of their clothes off, shove them into a room and take their picture. That's why they look so pissed off." And that they do. A random sampling of American Apparel advertising looks like they could be taken from Mad Lady Daily. Consider her. Like Shorts before her, this model is up against a wall, with her breast exposed, looking more than a little annoyed. Yes, I know they're probably going for smouldering here, but she doesn't look as if she's trying to seduce the camera. She looks like she's wondering what her boob has to do with the jeans she's wearing.

"That's their thing, they've been doing it for years." L said, sipping coffee. "I don't like it at all, but they want to get a reaction out of people, and it's working." She pointed out that American Apparel, like their white box stores and utilitarian design, want to appear to be a no-frills operation. To be just about the clothes, hence the "amateur" quality of the ads. "You're too smart for us," they wink, "We know all you really care about is comfortable, fashionable gear made honestly." And that's the rub. Loathe as I am to report this, when compared to other retailers, American Apparel is way above par in terms of the conditions under which their clothes are made. As the name suggests, all the clothing they carry is made entirely in the United States, and their labourers are paid a much higher wage than the employees of contemporaries like The Gap, who outsource much of their work to China or the Pacific Islands and have been accused of profiting entirely from sweatshop labour. Okay, so maybe no one's standing over AA employees with a whip (though doesn't this poor girl look like she was tossed into a rock quarry?), but what must it really be like to work there?

Sara is a bubbly, outgoing, actress who leapt at the chance to relay an experience she had once when she was between shows and looking for something in retail to supplement her income. "I walked into an American Apparel and they offered me a job," she writes, "[and] after my first training shift, I was offered a manager position." If things seemed like they were moving fast, she literally took flight soon thereafter. "They said, 'We want to train you in Toronto for two weeks!' And I thought, 'Why?' But I wanted a trip to Toronto and I didn’t have to sign anything, so I said okay. They flew me there and gave me $300 worth of free clothes and put me up. Generous! But weird!" Upon her arrival, she realized the store was terribly run and there was no system in place to train her or any other employees. "The company is not run in a unified way," she said, "so each location has to basically invent the way to run the store. Also, the head of the company periodically calls the managers and screams at them from LA. This happened while I was there. Not so cool." And so she quit.

Despite the short length of her tenure there, Sara got a very strong impression of the way the store operated. Most tellingly, she writes, "One has to have their picture approved by Dov [American Apparel CEO Dov Charney] to get a job there. A resume is not necessary." Though Sara is quick to clarify that she felt her value to the company was based on her style and not her looks. In other words, she did not feel objectified by the experience, but acknowledges that the company operates under a "terrible business model." But her connection to the company notwithstanding, her attitude towards the ads was the similar to what I heard from L and G. "The models are devoid of expression... One gets the impression that they have been drugged and then dressed. In some cases, the poses suggest that the girls can’t even literally stand up on their own." 

Josephine is an actress, and writer who writes a fantastic blog about the body as it relates to one's mental, spiritual and sexual health, and how examination of our physical selves relates to feminism and the culture at large. She writes that the ads disturb her "mostly because of the Gaze they contain... Ads are often explored through the gaze of the customer, but in AA it's actually the models eyes that make me really uncomfortable." She continues by explaining the deliberate choices the advertisers make to achieve this discomfort: "Between the hollow stares and 'caught' body-language, I feel like an unintended-voyeur to a private world where I don't belong... and not in the same way that Victoria's Secret magazine spreads do either. At least in lingerie ads there seems to be a certain transparency as to what they're about. But American Apparel? They're selling primarily zip up hoodies and deep V-necks for god's sake." Josephine does not absolve the consumer, though, saying, "I'm more grossed out by what I'm buying into than the product itself... because we create the demand for it. The same way I feel a need to tip a stand-offish server or bartender well, I think it's easy to want to buy into something that people make you feel is out of reach or unattainable."

Christine is an actress, comedian, writer, producer, Emmy nominee, and American. She writes and stars in the webseries I Wanna Have Your Baby and writes every week for Saturday Night Live. Unbelievably, she took the time to respond to my query. I'm so grateful. She too notices how the girls are not as polished as other fashion models, and how that notion plays with our perceptions. "[These models] aren't airbrushed, the sets aren't professional-seeming. So it does play on the idea that these are girls that you might actually know, which makes it more titillating in a way. BUT, the weird thing about that, and I think the thing that hits home for me, is that I then see these young models as unsafe or unprotected. I don't imagine the world of that photo shoot to be bustling with agents, managers, stagehands, techs, make up and hair people. It feels like someone barged into her home, someone she trusts, and took these inappropriate shots of her. And whatever it is that makes her seem innocent and vulnerable makes me feel like she's not old enough or smart enough to know what's happening to her."

Like L over breakfast, Christine acknowledges that, for better or worse, these techniques set American Apparel ads apart from their competition. "I guess it was/is a success. But there's something terribly disturbing about the fact that someone knew enough to know that there was a large enough segment of the population that wanted to accept these images. Even if they're grossed out by them, they're still CURIOUS about them. Speaking for myself, I am in that category. When an AA ad catches my eye, I stop and look at it. It's different. Part of my mind is wondering 'Is this SUPPOSED to look this way?' Another part is thinking how ugly the clothes are, and another part is feeling terrible for these girls, because, to bring me back to my original point, they seem like they are in peril and they don't even know. and the sick part is, that gets some people off. But hey, I paid attention to the ad and I remembered it."

That's the point, one supposes. Like the first time you view pornography, or that guy in Indiana Jones pulling out that other guys heart, or a really stupid answer on Family Feud, the exceptional nature of the event sticks in your brain. I don't like to think about how this ad was created (or what it has to do with skiing), or what larger context this girl was obviously photoshopped out of, or what this ad says about the view of women as simply body parts, playthings, objects.

Christine points out that this isn't just American Apparel's problem. "At the end of the day, women in [any] ads rarely look powerful. They look coy, submissive, objectified, child-like. They're commodities, they are to be bought, owned, acquired. The AA ads know what they are doing. It's disgusting, but they can always fall back on the fact that their stuff is made in the USA if you want to call them on their morals. But those pictures harken up child pornography as well.... It seems secret, the girls look like children, the pictures don't look professional. So I guess the entire executive side of AA is cool with their marketing. They should also be cool with letting their own young daughters and nieces hang out with the adult men who respond to their ads if they are so harmless."

It does seem that way. Consider this ad featuring two 16 year-old girls. Yes, they are flexible, but the sexual nature of that pose is hardly accidental. Lest you think I'm reading too much into it, please consider an ad with two 16 year-old boys, chest to chest in short-shorts, hoisting their bare legs up over their heads. Weird, isn't it? It should be weird in this case too.

I saw this movie last weekend called The Hunger Games, which I liked in spite of being really disturbed by it. Spoiler alert, a bunch of teens kill other teens. That was hard to stomach, until somebody mentioned it was satirical, which is a really good point when you're frequently as humourless as I am. Satire can show us that which makes us uncomfortable in a subversive way that makes us question our own lives. That's what Christine supposes just might be going on here. She says, "Maybe these ads are a great satire of women's clothes ads. The women in normal ads have no power to begin with, so let's just take it all away and make it look like they're locked in some creep's basement. and they're modified to look younger, thinner. Why not just make them look like a 14 year old really looks, and lay bare the fact that we're obsessed with youth? It's creepy and wrong that we are staring at their mostly naked, contorted, painted, starved bodies. How much more creepy and wrong is it to look at child porn? What's the spectrum? Maybe AA is smarter than we thought."

Maybe. Or maybe the facade is crumbling. One person who declined to contribute to this piece was Claudine Ko. She wrote an amazing, controversial article about American Apparel CEO Dov Charney for the now defunct
Jane magazine. I hesitate to link to it or quote it here because she may very well be tired of being associated with it, but I strongly suggest searching for the piece online where it is widely available. Among other things, she depicts Charney as having inappropriate relationships with some of his staff, behaving erratically, even masturbating in front her during their interview. Recently, charges were filed against Charney accusing him of sodomizing and imprisoning a former staffer on the auspicious evening of her 18th birthday, though it was ruled the case is now to be settled out of court. So if this guy is a sexual predator (allegedly), mentally unstable (conjecture), and makes ads like this one (fact), he's only smarter than we are if we continue to give him profit.

Unlike the young, naive women depicted in these ads, I know that no one is going to see me in my underpants. My vanity should not override my conscience. Therefore, bright colours and a simple design shouldn't dictate where my money goes. I still may not know what's going on with these advertisements, but I know enough not to line the pockets of perverts who think I'm an idiot. Nothing American, nothing appealing, about that.

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