She’s cool, stylish, American-made, and is always down for a good time. Her ads drip with sex appeal and she doesn’t apologize for the coy naked woman in provocative downward-dog. This LA girl is pro-gay, pro-‘transexy’, and pro-sex. Her face may be glowing but she’s sweatshop-free and always looks out for her workers, paying a fair wage well above the minimum. The Queen wasn’t too amused and some of her ads were banned in England. She is a muse for all women and the product of one man, Dov Charney. She is American Apparel. What do you think of her?
But wait, don’t answer too soon. There is more to the story. First, let’s explore American Apparel’s image more thoroughly, along with the alleged conduct of its founder and leader, Dov Charney. After a deeper look at the organization and its leader, we will discuss their actions on a moral ground, viewing the case through teleological ethical lenses. Perhaps then we will clearly see American Apparel as either an angel and guardian of good employee working conditions or a devil bent on money-hungry seduction.
I’ve met American Apparel before. She has bombarded me with scandalous advertising since I was a young girl walking through the mall with my father during our annual holiday shopping trips. I remember blushing as I passed the store, glancing timidly at the 7 foot poster ad of a topless girl, strategically covered, modeling neon leggings. Even at the tender age of 8, I knew they were cool and I knew they were after me. Here I am, 20 years old and they have their sights set on me still. Although I don’t fit perfectly into their target market, which consists of “young metropolitan adults age 20 to 32 who live and work in major urban markets and have disposable income”, they wouldn’t mind my money, or my body for their advertising (The Economist). This over sexualized, scandalous image represents one face of the organization, but she isn’t as shallow as she looks. American apparel keeps one aspect of her work a bit under wraps. The organization’s business model consists of all made-in-America clothing, fair employee wages, and more than fair employee benefits. American Apparel also believes in the legalization of gay marriage, the acceptance of transsexual and bisexual individuals, and takes a strong public stance on immigration reform. However, let’s meet the Jekyll and Hyde of American Apparel Inc. and the mad scientist, CEO Dov Charney, before fully judging her.
Canadian-native Dov Charney began American Apparel Inc. as a simple T-shirt business, selling wholesale, cotton, non-logo T-shirts out of Los Angeles in 1997 after dropping out of Tufts University. The first retail store was established in 2004, and ever since the organization has been expanding—clothing lines, retail store locations—with plans for more. Now, it operates more than 250 retail stores in 20 countries worldwide. The organization sells much more than apparel let alone a simple T-shirt. Their eclectic lines range from dance leotards, to sweaters and lingerie, as well as makeup and jewelry. Charney believes the success of the organization is heavily due to their made-in-America and anti-sweatshop manufacturing practices (Walker 2008). The downtown LA factory, the “largest apparel manufacturing facility left in America” houses all business operations, from cutting, sewing, and screening, to the accounting, production, and marketing departments, including Charney’s office (Dean 2005). While nearly every other major apparel brand ships oversees for cheap labor in China, Taiwan and India, “[Charney is] making a killing by staying put” (Dean 2005). Charney has complete control over garment quality and design at his figure tips, “enables him to monitor the fickle fashion market and respond quickly to new trends” while keeping energy costs low (Business: The Hustler). When an elevator ride is all it takes to assess the product, new ideas, critiques, and production moves fast.
Hand-in-hand with American-made American Apparel is the organization’s sweatshop-free practices. American Apparel’s website boasts that “many highly skilled sewers earn upwards of $30,000 per year, which is in sharp contrast to the 20 cent per hour wages commonly found at factories abroad” (American Apparel Inc., 2012). In fact, manufacturing employees earn about $12 an hour, well over California’s minimum wage of $6.75, with options of purchasing subsidized health insurance for $8 per week. “They are entitled to free English lessons, subsidized meals and free parking”, as well as receiving “an average of 500 shares in public…worth about $4,500” (Business: The Hustler). The organization has participated in political activism, through billboard images, rallies, and even t-shirt design. Their main two campaigns include “Legalize LA”, which supports immigration reform and “Legalize Gay”, vying for the legalization of gay marriage (American Apparel Inc., 2012).
With this many ethical practices in place, one would expect that American Apparel’s advertising would scream pro-American manufacturing and sweatshop free, to grab socially conscience consumers. Instead, Charney chooses to address the company’s admirable ethical practices in an understated way. It is as though he wants to hurry up and get back to the sex. In fact, as Charney so eloquently explains trumpeting sweatshop free in a company’s advertising is “like a sexy girl who keeps telling you she’s sexy; it’s nauseating” (Dean 2005).
If American Apparel’s marketing strategy was summed up in a word, some choices might be—Provocative. Scandalous. Artsy. Pornographic. Entertaining. Sexual. Regardless of the word, these ads leave many people speechless. The outlandish CEO sees it another way. Charney says the ads are simply honest. The women in the ads are not models, but rather Charney’s latest fascinations. They are customers, employees, friends, romantic partners, or random women he spots while out and about (Business: The Hustler). He has even advertised open casting calls on Instagram. Recently American Apparel instagrammed a “Transgender/Transsexual” open model call for anyone ages 16 and up and “transexy” (Murray, 2013). Rather than his products, he puts the models usually half-clothed body at the center of it all. “‘We’re a fantasy, he says, chuckling. ‘American Apparel is make-believe. We can do whatever the f— we want’” (Dean 2005).
However, many don’t take such a liberal view. The organization’s ads have been targeted numerous times by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which banned some images that were considered to have a “‘voyeuristic’ quality,… which served to heighten the impression that the women were vulnerable and in sexually proactive poses” (O’Reily, 2013) Image to the left is the banned ad.
Charney sees his ads as art, celebrating the female body in all of its glory—real and imperfect. He comments, “‘Sexuality’s been tied into fashion since Paris in the 1600s…There were drawings of women in corsets hundreds of years before the telephone. But now there’s this sex phobia. It’s a waste of time”” (Dean 2005). There is an artistic feel to the minimalistic ads—girls’ faces are kept clean of makeup, photographs are taken with a low-digital camera. It does feel somewhat natural. But are these ads selling the products or are they selling the girl? The format of the most typical American Apparel advertisement is a large photo of a woman barely clothed, with a “Meet ______” tag line and a small bio about the woman. In some ads, the woman is featured more than the product, while in others the product takes center stage. Regardless of where your eyes go first, the viewer can always count on overly-sexual innuendo and a shallow snapshot of a bare woman.
Meet Dov Charney. The Controversial Creator.
You’ve met the company. But before we meet the real Dov Charney, let’s meet Kimbro Lo. Lo is a former American Apparel employee who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Charney in 2011, at the age of 19, along with other women. Lo claimed “Mr. Charney wrapped in a towel, invited her to his bedroom to talk about a job. Once there, she said he undressed her and tried to have sex. Ms. Lo said she sought to resist but was afraid, and that he tried to take photographs” (Holson, 2011). Lo said that after she left American Apparel to pursue modeling opportunities Charney “sent her sexually explicit text messages and asked her for photographs” (Holson, 2011). Charney’s photos of a nude Lo were posted on a website days after the lawsuit was filed. Charney didn’t comment on that fact, although he is very vocal about having sexual relations with co-workers. “People think because I talk about hot ass that I’m some sort of pervert”, he says (Dean, 2005).
To that point, he often walks around the office only his underwear and sometimes wearing nothing at all (Walker 2008). The office, decorated with Playboy pinups and Penthouse covers coating the walls, serve as Charney’s creative inspiration. Charney the “Legalize LA” and “Legalize Gay” hero, the champion of sweatshop-free American manufacturing, doesn’t seem to be too concerned with his sexual tendencies in the office. The explicit actions of American Apparel’s unconventional leader speak louder than the organization’s employee benefits. What other benefits is Charney looking for on the side and can we even consider this organization to be the least bit moral with this man in charge?
Meet a New Player: Teleological Ethics
Teleological ethics with a focus on sexual advertising, “addresses the effects, harms, benefits, and consequences…for all parties encountering them, including the market target, other people seeing such appeals, but who may or may not see such appeal but are affected by interaction with others who have seen” (Gould, 1994). With this lens, let’s critique American Apparel’s advertisements and consider the organization’s intentions and the unintended consequences that could permeate our society as a result.
The intention of American Apparel’s ads is very simple: sell clothes. One strike against the organization on the teleological scoreboard falls under the “use of sexual appeals to sell ‘unneeded’ products”, which could lead to an unhealthy fascination with materialism (Gould 1994). Although many clothing organizations are guilty of this, American Apparel’s complete disregard for appropriate censorship points directly to the blatant seduction of consumers to purchase products they do not need (Gould, 1994). Combining a woman in a sexual pose and an American Apparel product, such as socks, connects the two suggesting a promise of sexual relations if the consumer purchases the socks. However, once seduced, what happens and how are we affected?
In the category of unintended consequences, we see nothing but red flags. As models’ legs open and bare-breasts are exposed, we think back to the little eight- year old girl walking with her parents passed the American Apparel ad, blushing at the sight. She is subjected to view the adult soft-core porn displayed, a clearly immoral event. We can only wonder if that model’s younger siblings translate her overly sexualized poses into their own behavior. Will they begin to view sexuality as something only explicit? Or will they begin to be desensitized to these overtly perverse images?
It’s not a stretch to believe that young children are exposed to American Apparel’s ads. Although American Apparel’s target audience is 20-25 year olds, advertisements on billboards, buses, and in magazines hit the younger demographic as well. Jane Buckingham, President of the Intelligence Group, follows young-adult/kid trends in brand appreciation. She reports “American Apparel is one of the most influential brands going…it appears high in every category of cool” (Dean, 2005). The brand’s image is atop a pedestal, perceived as a trendy and cool—attributes that young children desperately emulate. “These images are said to be male-oriented in that the models either are put in ads for men to look at or for women to ‘look at being looked at’ to see how they would or should desire to appear to men” (Gould 1994). These advertisements are setting an example for girls, saying that they are expected to be as sexually explicit in daily life and that men will only desire them if they are this sexual. Ads appeal to boys’ code of behavior as well, explaining that a woman’s sexuality is meant to be public and women exposed is normal and for your eyes to enjoy.
An apparently intended consequence is the demoralization of women. As previously explained, many American Apparel ads feature a woman barely wearing the product and a bio. In many ads, the products are hardly displayed, while the woman stares into the camera, begging to be bought. These advertisements are clearly selling more than the product; they are selling the model’s body. The model’s Meet Me bio suggests the girls are for sale in some kind of salacious auction. American Apparel is not in the business of selling clothes. They are selling sex at the cost of female dignity and respect. One could make the point that the woman’s body in its natural state is empowering and American Appeal’s advertising is breaking harsh societal norms. But is sex all that a woman is good for? Is the only way to display a woman’s body in a sexual nature? Also, what are the vulnerability and submissive poses relaying to the audience? These ads make women’s most private moments obscenely public, suggesting that they are simply toys for our amusement and only a vulgar show to be watched. This extreme level of sexuality in advertisement “fosters an atmosphere of disrespect for and objectification of [women]” (Richins, 1991). It was “reported that women make social comparisons between idealized images in the form of advertising models and themselves, with the result that ads involving such images generate negative affect, and lower a woman’s satisfaction with her own appearance” (Richins, 1991). American Apparel promotes an especially foul standard for women, convinces them they are not up to par, and seduces them into buying their products. The profane cycle continues.
Dov Charney, the frontrunner, founder, and visionary of American Apparel only adds to the demobilization of woman and the increasingly dismal societal norms for women. His complete disregard for the rights of females in the workplace, repugnant daily actions, and the creation and progression of American Apparel’s all-sex advertising greatly contributes to the regression of feminist advancement in society today.
American Apparel’s ads and their lewd hypnotism infiltrate our society, leading to the unnecessary purchase of products, the overall promotion of excess materialism, and the raunchy standard to which society holds women. Possible concrete consequences? Increasing numbers of unwanted teenage pregnancy, early consensual sex or rape, demoralization of women in the workplace, as well as social environments. Teleological ethics considers even those who aren’t touched directly by the ethical assailant. In this case, perhaps a man believes women exist only for his sexual satisfaction due to exposure to ads like American Apparel’s.
We are sweatshop-free and American made, but we trash our women and take their money? The story doesn’t seem to balance, nor does it feel as seductive as the scandalously-clad women sprawled across highway billboards. Charney seems less charming, less heroic and more like a maniacal sexual deviant, milking his business for its cash and its pornographic perks. We’ve met all we need to meet and I am sure I don’t want to know American Apparel anymore.
American Apparel Inc., About us. (2012) Retrieved from http://www.americanapparel.net/aboutus/
American Apparel, Inc., Photo archive. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.americanapparel.net/photovideo/photo/
Dean, J. (2005, Sep 2005). Dov charney, like it or not. Inc, 27, 124-131.
Gould, S. J. (1994). Sexuality and ethics in advertising: A research agenda and policy guideline perspective. Journal of Advertising, 23(3), 73.
Holson, L. M. (2011, April 13). He’s only just begun to fight. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/14/fashion/14CHARNEY.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Murray, R., (2013, August 27). American apparel issues open call for transgender models. NY Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/fashion/american-apparel-call-transgender-models-article-1.1438258
O’Reilly, L. (2013, April 10). American apparel reprimanded again for ‘sexual ad’. Marketing Week, Retrieved from http://www.marketingweek.co.uk/news/american-apparel-reprimanded-again-for-sexual-ad/4006244.article
Richins, Marsha L. (1991), “Social Comparisons and the idealized Images of Advertising,” Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (June), 71-83.
The Economist. Business: The hustler; face value. (2007, Jan 6, 2007). The Economist, 382, 56.
Walker, R. (2008, Jun 2008). Sex vs ethics. Fast Company, , 74-78.
All images retrieved from American Apparel “Photo Archive” page on the company website: