How I armed my kid to battle predatory brands, and what she taught me in return.

Surprise surprise - there's a social media firestorm brewing about Ambercrombie and Fitch again....

This embroilment is related to a comments made by CEO, Mike Jeffries in an interview, related to Abercrombie's targeting of the "cool set."  In Jeffries' terms, the brand is exclusive by design - targeted to the "cool" and "beautiful" kids -- and definitely not fat or ugly kids.

Do the research to dig out the quotes yourself, please... because frankly, this drama isn't the point of this post.  Despite Jeffries' diversity hypocrisy, snobbery and stupidity --- and even as a "fat chick" -- I don't really care.

Truth is -- Abercrombie thrives on this kind of attention -- This is not new.  This is their MO.  Google it. They've got media exposure in Huffpo, Forbes, and a ton of major media outlets in addition to social and blog posts.  I'm not even linking to it all.  Abercrombie doesn't care if you are ticked.  If they wanted you to like them, they would never have attempted to market thong underwear with suggestive sexual comments for 8 year olds.  Jeffries probably doesn't even care that people are ripping into his physical looks and calling him ugly and hideous in social media - and I daresay it's not just because that behavior is stupid, mean,  hypocritical and indefensible.

They don't care that you're mad because they believe attention is good for business. This whole move is focused on driving affinity for certain type of customer -- the "cool kids" -- and they are confident it will create a stronger desire in the "neglected fringes" to "fit in" via brand association.They laugh all the way to the bank! 

Abercrombie and Fitch doesn't care - about you as a person or a parent - or even about your kids.  They've also done their homework.   There's a pretty good chance that left to themselves, your kids  - cool or not, ugly or not, fat or not, are highly likely to continue wanting their overpriced goods.

This is precisely what motivated me to take action seven years ago with my step-daughter, Michelle - and I thought I'd share an updated article I placed on posterous about it.

How I armed my kid to battle a predatory brand - and what she taught me in return.

When my step daughter, Michelle was 15, she became frustrated because Dad didn’t want her to shop at Abercrombie and Fitch.  We discussed it in some depth and agreed it was important not to make her feel like her choices were being taken away from her unfairly - but to help her make good choices on her own.

So I took her on an Ambercrombie shopping trip.  I took the trip as a springboard for talking about the brand - the in-store experience, marketing, clothing, quality, sourcing, etc.  After all, this is part of what I do for a living and the store visit provided great fodder for discussion.  We walked into the cologne laden lounge-like setting.... There were the traditional shirtless, steamy model posters everywhere and rows of neatly folded garments.

Michelle's first comment was related to her surprise over the lack of variety in the homogenous stacks and racks of mass-produced clothing.   We watched as girls bopped in and out around us… looking very much the same…ponytails with headbands, tight layered t-shirts and perfect butt sweats with the Abercrombie moniker on the seat.  It was interesting to watch the clothes walk around the store… This was especially true for my daughter -- a kid who tried her hand at sewing her own clothes and making her own wallets out of duct tape (sheerly to be unique).  For her, the seeming lack of individuality was a turnoff.

Her next objection was over prices.  I had explained to her that she was welcome to spend her own money in the store, but that her dad and I would not spend any money there because of our objections to the company's sexual marketing to tweens and teens.  We made our way to the sale table, where the cheapest thing we found was a simple white tank top for $38 …  It was cute, but nothing special.  As our babysitting pro clutched on to her hard-earned dollars, she was simply offended by the prices.

This led into a chat about value.  We took a look at garment construction inspecting the material, stitching, threads on hemlines and embellishments.  We looked at construction, which was inconsistent and not noticeably better than Target or Old Navy. We talked about quality and workmanship.

Next, we looked at labels…. the ones that were labled were made in third world  - in places like Bangladesh.  It was sobering for her to consider the $56 tank-top on sale for $38 that she held likely cost less than a dollar to produce and was made by some of the poorest people on the planet… in a country that has been criticized for exploitation of workers and child labor.  (Of course, Abercrombie isn't alone in that business conduct - which is a sobering thought all around.)

Then we talked about the packaging. We talked about how the storefront made us feel... the in-store "exclusive club-like" experience ... we talked about the clothes and the power of wearing a brand on your body.  We talked about the pictures of the models and the marketing in the dressing rooms and the messages they conveyed.

We praised the praise-worthy -- we critically discussed the rest.  In truth, while I'd like to say I was objective -- I am sure I was not. I did try to issue self restraint.

Holding my tongue

I didn’t ask her to picture herself or HER child (regardless of age) in one one of these "cute" Abercrombie statement t-shirts:

For Girls:
  • Tie me up, don't tie me down
  • All bed, no breakfast
  • I always end up on top
  • Anyone you can do, I can do better
For Boys:
  • She Goes Both Ways
  • Ride the tip
  • Maybe Partying will Help
  • Volley My Balls Please
I didn’t point her to their quarterly “catalog” FILLED with sexual imagery and emaciated girls that might suggest to my daughter that her cute, blossoming figure was less than acceptable.  

I didn't tell her about the company's then web-based and explicit “Screen Test” area, where an anonymous login links users to explicit video of muscular guys and hauntingly thin girls romping around in full nudity, stripping for each other - with butts and boobs for miles and naked make out sessions that feature Guys with girls, girls kissing girls, some allusions to guy on guy action.  (Note: For copyright reasons I didn't post screen shots - but I guarantee many parents would have been shocked to see this stuff).

All of this, produced and made accessible by a brand that wanted to take her money and put its brand on her adorable backside.  No way.  My decision about Abercrombie was an easy one.  This wasn't about me.

What was harder was contending with this beautiful, blonde 15 year old, who was racing into adulthood and developing her own identity.  While I hoped she'd agree with her Dad and me, it was much more important to help her make decisions like this for herself.  What was more important was helping her recognize and deal with predatory brands.  So my mission was to get her to think — for herself — armed with some new facts, and guided by her own conscience.  I wanted her to be honest. After all, if we raised her right, she should be able to come to solid conclusions on her own.

Her conscience told her to leave — and she has never gone back.

Today, our daughter is 22.  She carries a new (and sometimes surprising) set of convictions about the way she eats, consumes and shops that is only partially rooted in this experience.   When she came back from a year and a half abroad doing mission/humanitarian work in New Zealand, India, Fiji and Samoa…she informed me she’d no longer accompany me to my favorite coffee house because they don’t unilaterally support Fair Trade.  She won’t drink soda because it’s making us all fatter (and we’re SO blessed to have free, clean water!) She won’t eat chocolate that isn’t “fair trade” stamped because she’s been studying human trafficking in the Ivory Coast.  She doesn’t want to be used as a billboard for any brand.  She shops from thrift stores first when she needs something because it's cheaper and more socially and environmentally responsible.  That's my girl.

What's cooler still is that she isn't a bummer to be around.  She lives her life non judgmentally and with a smile, positive attitude and outlook.  She inspires new convictions in me and others. I can see how Michelle’s convictions can quickly be considered and even embraced by a group.  Especially as she lives her values in an edifying way -- living them proudly and unapologetically and beautifully - in praise of higher living. I can imagine the cascading impact her life can have.

(And I can't take credit for her -- she has always been an incredible kid.)

I wish I'd had that quality at her age. I didn't have her courage.  I often feared that living in alignment with my true core values would be isolating. So, I compromised, a lot.  I didn't "get" comfortable in my own skin until much later in life.

Accepting the Truth comes with a price.

I didn’t mean to create an activist here - I was trying to be a decent parent by making a few points about something I know - which is customer experience and marketing.  I was just trying to be faithful with the insights I've been given.

The thing is, once you flutter your eyes a bit, what you see around you - and what lies behind the scenes can be a rude and somewhat overwhelming awakening.  Faced with the truth, we can choose to respond in a positive way or curl up in the fetal position of denial.

I'm glad she is making good choices.  I can't help but feel the conviction she embraces today will give her an early edge in life - leading into a truly influential and powerful way of living.  It's based on a simple principle:

Living our values gives us the power to destroy the market for reprehensible things … and create new markets for lovely things. 

This isn't about Abercrombie and Fitch.  I don't like the company but it isn't the enemy.  Our real enemies are our own apathy, denial and a lack of moral fiber.  If you care about Abercrombie, by all means do as your conscience dictates.  There are a million ways to voice your concern and fight back.  If you don’t care about Abercrombie - that’s totally fine.  Pick another platform!  Human Trafficking, Sustainable Agriculture, Global Warming....  The fields are ripe with opportunity.

Whatever you do - don’t just sit there.  As the truth builds and cascades around us - we must choose to respond.  We won’t always be right, or be perfect (I am so far off it’s not funny). We won't be able to take on every battle.  We will sometimes be unwitting hypocrites and we won't always win.  However, we can do our BEST, for ourselves, our kids and our future.

After all, if we don't take responsibly, we lose our right to complain. 

What do you think?


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LEIGH DURST

LEIGH DURST
I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.

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