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Does Sex Still Sell?

Business Insider

November 8, 2015

By Mallory Schlossberg

In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch was notorious for its sexy marketing campaigns.

Some of the advertisements bordered on pornographic, and its quarterly catalog was often outrageous.

And who could forget Abercrombie’s iconic shirtless men who greeted shoppers as they entered stores? Or the PG-13 shopping bags with couples wrapped up in each other’s arms, mid-kiss?

But that was in the past.

Looking at Abercrombie & Fitch’s latest campaign, the sex is noticeably absent. Amid declining sales, the teen brand has been slowly but surely chipping away at its raunchy reputation to become more palatable to the modern consumer.


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Abercrombie’s efforts to rebrand have been clear. The brand has promised fewer logos, hopped on some trends, and toned down its “hot salesclerk” policy. The shirtless models are no longer greeting tourists at the New York City flagship store.

Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t the only retailer that has ditched its trademark sexual marketing.

“The most important thing they are doing is signaling a major shift,” Ruth Bernstein

American Apparel, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this fall, was known for its sexual marketing campaigns almost as much as it was known for its notorious ex-CEO, Dov Charney. This summer, the brand’s ad campaigns were noticeably less racy.

The retailer’s Instagram feed shows how much less carnal the brand’s imagery has become. Models are no longer nearly naked and sprawled out in suggestive positions; instead, they are covered up. Necklines are higher, and hem lines are lower.

These major changes indicate massive changes in consumers’ mentalities.

“The most important thing they are doing is signaling a major shift,” Ruth Bernstein, cofounder and chief strategic officer of the image-making agency YARD, told Business Insider. “Whether or not these campaigns can save the brands we’ll see, but they are doing some heavy lifting in terms of repositioning themselves to the consumer, and that’s definitely a step in the right direction for them. [Abercrombie & Fitch’s] new campaign not only tames them, it raises their fashion credentials by looking much more editorial and current.”

The older campaigns of Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel were “overtly sexual without any substance behind them,” Bernstein, who has created brand strategies and campaigns for high-profile companies including John Varvatos and Timberland, said. “Whilst they may have been iconic, they both also err on the side of exploitative. Consumers are looking for a lot more from a brand now.”

Bernstein points to millennials and the crucial demographic Generation Z as those who are responsible for igniting this change. “They don’t respond to traditional notions of beauty or even sexuality,” she said. “They respond to real social change and self direction. There is a reason that the Aerie campaigns that are not retouched are doing well. They are making a statement, changing an industry, and are still aspirational.”


Additionally, consumers are flooded with sexual imagery, so sexual imagery that’s vacuous and devoid of meaning no longer connects with consumers.

“Today, the world is so saturated with nudity and sex, people are looking for more than just shock and nudity because you can see those anywhere,” Bernstein said. “The consumer is looking for sex-plus.”

Playboy recently announced plans for it to stop publishing nude photos in its magazine, in part because circulation was slipping — most likely because consumers have such easy access to sexual imagery.

“That battle has been fought and won … you’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told The New York Times.

Advertising is supposed to provoke a visceral response, and if people see sexual imagery every day, an advertisement that uses sex faces added difficulty standing out.

If a brand gets sexy imagery right, however, Bernstein believes it will continue to sell. “What is truly sexy is the key, and shifts along with the culture and every generation,” she said. “When you get it right, it still absolutely works and sells. The trick is to understanding that sexy has evolved.”

Bernstein described this new sex that has replaced the old-school sex as “a modern take on the same dynamics, that infuses meaning, that leaves room for the imagination, that allows for a greater range of identity and orientation.”

“An approach that brings in some brains to the brawn,” she added.

“It’s all been a part of a generational shift towards greater sense of empowerment and individuality,” she said. “Sex is still a very strong motivator in a lot of categories, it’s just a matter of approach.”

In other words, the shirtless in-store model approach is worn out and tired.

“As a company, we are focused on our customers and providing them with a great experience. We announced a number of changes to our policies earlier this year, including the elimination of sexualized imagery,” a spokesperson for Abercrombie & Fitch told Business Insider in a statement. “Many of these changes were based on feedback from our customers and we are pleased to see that our updated imagery is resonating with them.”

American Apparel has not yet responded to Business Insider’s request for a comment.