Every time I see another one of American Apparel's ultrasleazy ads, I presumably fall into the trap these ads have set for me and find myself wondering about sleaze's effectiveness as an promotional strategy. (Angry advertising blogger copyranter has an informative set of posts on the campaign here, if you need a reference point.)The people I know who wear American Apparel's clothes usually claim to wear them despite the ad campaign, claiming the clothes are exceptionally well-designed, or comfortable, or well-fitting or some other mitigating factor -- because they obviously want to disassociate themselves publicly from the implications of the ads, namely that sluts and pervy scumbags wear American Apparel.
It's fairly well-established that American Apparel founder Dov Charney is a tad skeevy; this NYT story about his selling the company to a private equity group details how employees now sign a sort of sexual harassment waiver: "American Apparel is in the business of designing and manufacturing sexually charged T-shirts and intimate apparel, and uses sexually charged visual and oral communications in its marketing and sales activity." But he's also a successful businessman, as the NYT article also makes amply clear, so obviously this ad campaign would have stopped long ago if his skanky predilections would have had any chance of hurting his big payday. Clearly the ads keep coming because they are working; one of the ways they work is that they prompt people like me to fret and complain about them in a public forum, doing word-of-mouth advertising for them gratis. And plus I get the prude's thrill of being titillated by what I complain about without having to acknowledge fully to myself that it's so. "These ads are so terrible; just look another one, aren't they terrible?" But people like me will never support the company by actually buying the clothes.
So these ads must have something for actual fashion-conscious shoppers: They must project an identity that some consumers apparently identify with and find attractive; some people must see these ads and feel a vicarious thrill at the lifestyle they suggest: the possibility of blase sexual exploitation lurking around every urban corner. If you buy into these ads, maybe wearing American Apparel's clothes makes you feel sexualized as well, makes you believe that wearing a T-shirt is suddenly bold, even risque.
Perhaps the ads, by depicting fetishes unapologetically, tap into something comparably compulsive in consumers, giving sanction to the innate tendencies toward sleaze that we typically suppress. But eventually when we become too conscious of the gratification, we'll reject the source of the dissonance. We'll feel as though the advertiser is trying to cheat by circumventing the approved filters, the customary disguises -- fashion advertisers may be able to get away with perviness under the guise of brash transgression for a while but eventually it becomes distasteful. Suddenly, depersonalized sex seems not a promise of some kind of transformative freedom (a pretty far-fetched notion the more you think about it) but an illustration of how depersonalizing fashion itself is.
American Apparel's popularity reminds a bit of the late 1970s power pop band the Knack, who seemed bizarrely compelled to take something immaculately crafted (pop songs as opposed to T-shirts) and sully it with sexist sleaze: "Good Girls Don't", "Frustrated", etc. Their signature song is like Dov Charney's interior monologue: "Never gonna stop give it up such a dirty mind / Always get it up for the touch of the younger kind." Yet the song is at the same time a clinic in pop craftsmanship; every nook and cranny is filled with an irresistible hook, and the guitar solo is one ear-tugging riff after another. When the Knack first caught on, they were ubiquitous, but soon audiences turned against them -- perhaps it was the overdone Beatles imitation of their album design, but it may also have been that the sleaze that was at first edgy and vaguely interesting -- making the familiar pop seem daring, hipper than its popularity would generally allow -- suddenly revealed itself as tedious and unimaginative. Their second album proved this to be so. Dov Charney, of course, is in the fortunate position of not having to come up with a second act for his career.