American Apparel (APP) has managed to turn one woman's practical joke into a corporate PR implosion after Nancy Upton, a Dallas-based actress, won a web poll to find a plus-size model for the brand with a series of photos poking fun at the contest. Upton's entry showed her stuffing her face with pie, bathing in salad cream and suckling on an apple like a roast pig.
AA creative director Iris Alonzo was not amused at Upton's popularity with visitors to the competition web site, and told her she was disqualified in an email last night. This image of AA's web site clearly shows Upton topping the company's popularity contest (click to enlarge):
Rather than simply informing Upton that she was disqualified because she had not entered into the spirit of the promotion, Alonzo wrote a 965-word screed that says more about the company's inner psyche than it does about Upton:
It's a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that "bootylicous" was too much for you to handle.
I wonder if you had taken just a moment to imagine that this campaign could actually be well intentioned, and that my team and I are not out to offend and insult women, would you have still behaved in the same way, mocking the confident and excited participants who put themselves out there?Needless to say, Upton published the email on her blog, creating even more publicity. Upton was already earning more media mentions than the original competition.
AA's PR defensiveness -- due to CEO Dov Charney, who has earned headlines for all the wrong reasons -- comes off in Alonzo's email, too:
In the past, American Apparel has been targeted for various reasons, many times by journalists who weren't willing to go the extra mile to even visit the factory or meet the people in charge. Dov is a great executive director and American Industrialist, but there are hundreds of other decision-makers in our company, over half of whom are women.
However, sensational media will always need something to latch on to and success, spandex and individuality (and mutton chops circa 2004) are certainly easy targets. And who knows - maybe the PR ups and downs are all part of our DNA as a company.How should American Apparel have handled this? Clearly it should have done a little copy-testing prior to publishing its contest rules, which were littered with fat puns such as "the Next BIG Thing" and "XLent"; Upton wasn't the only person who thought the effort was more about the ghetto-ization of plus-size women than a genuine desire to market clothes to a broader audience.
Then, it would have been worth trying to engage Upton behind the scenes. Fly her out to L.A. Let her tour the factory. Meet Charney, even. She's an actress, not an implacable insurgent force. UPDATE: Following the backlash, AA has done a U-turn and done just that, invited her out to L.A.
Upton is clearly photogenic, and the art direction of her "I just can't stop eating" photoshoot (by Shannon Skloss) is a lot more original than the rut that AA's ads are currently in. Who knows where it could have gone go.
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