American Apparel Makes Friday Masturbation Day

aa_thigh_socks.jpg

Having followed the American Apparel campaign for some time, Copyranter reacted to the latest iteration with the following headline, "It's Friday. Why Don't You Masturbate." One can't ask for a better headline when it comes to discussing American Apparel campaigns which, for a long time, have been one step above porn. It's just Dov Charney's way and who are we to complain. Sex is supposed to sell, right?

Written by Steve Hall    Comments (3)     File: Magazine, Racy, Strange     Sep- 7-07  
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Originally published September 4, 2007

There's a very thin line between ick and porn

By Meghan Daum


I've been looking at American Apparel's advertisements for years now, and I'm still not sure what I think about them.

My feelings are another story. I loathe them - and not just because the super-hip, can't-be-bothered-to-look-professional-because-that's-so-uncool aesthetic is emblematic of everything that's irritating about a segment of contemporary urban-youth culture.

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I loathe them because I believe they're meant to evoke pornography, sometimes even child pornography. The fact that: a) this cannot be proved, and b) you can't say it without sounding like a prudish old biddy, drives me crazy.

You don't know what an American Apparel ad looks like? Picture people in their early 20s who look 15. Picture them in unflattering lighting, posing in underwear or tight T-shirts on a linoleum floor, a mattress, against a white wall, or in a bathtub. Imagine their "natural beauty" being so thoroughly "respected" that no attempt has been made to hide pimples, razor stubble or sweat stains. Imagine them wearing facial expressions that suggest someone has just kicked the door down and caught them carving ska lyrics into their forearms with Exacto knives.

Those are the tamer ads.

From store window displays to billboards to print advertisements (mostly in alternative weekly newspapers), we can see the company logo and young women in men's-style briefs lying on their stomachs, young women in bathing suits with their legs spread, and young women whose torsos are covered only by their knees, which in turn are covered by 1970s-style knee-length tube socks.

Though the models are an ethnically diverse bunch, there appears to be a slight emphasis on Asian and Hispanic women (it turns out many of the models are employed in American Apparel's factory or retail stores).

Although none of this absolutely adds up to child pornography, there's something about the grimy, sweaty quality of many of the shots, the fleabag motel-room backgrounds, and the models' startled, faux-innocent expressions that make it all look less than legal.

I'm not the first to make this observation, and American Apparel, wisely, has long maintained a "but-it's-art" defense. To help it along, many of the stores exhibit the work of local photographers, and American Apparel's Web site has a gallery section that displays the work of amateur photographers documenting their neighborhoods .

It must also be said that American Apparel's wares are really made in America, in a single factory in downtown Los Angeles, where workers are paid an average of $12.50 an hour and offered subsidized meals, health care and free English-as-a-second-language lessons.

Dov Charney, the company's 38-year-old founder and chief executive, has been praised by immigrant-rights groups for his anti-sweatshop stance and by the business community for his astonishing rise to success (he started in 2003 with one store).

On the other hand, Charney has also been sued by four employees for sexual harassment, is known for holding meetings in his underwear (a video of which used to appear on American Apparel's Web site) and notoriously masturbated in front of a magazine reporter who was writing a profile of the company.

He also takes many of the photos that appear in the ads, selecting models from among his employees as well as people he sees on the street (they are reportedly paid a small fee).

And sometimes he picks himself as model. A pale, resolutely non-buff manboy with a highly cultivated seedy disco-era look (handlebar mustache and aviator glasses), Charney has put himself on nearly full display in a number of ads, at least one of which shows him in bed with apparently naked, much-younger women who look disheveled and adoring.

It's icky for sure, but is it wrong?

Like Charney himself, American Apparel's ads are simultaneously defensible and indefensible. That's what makes them manipulative, especially to the progressive-minded person. No matter how vigorously she might defend free speech or hold forth about the transgressive appeal of billboard art, something about these ads puts her in the uncomfortable position of knowing just what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart meant when he said hard-core pornography was hard to define "but I know it when I see it."

Is it the disarming "naturalness" of the models that makes us "know" we're seeing something shady? Is it possible that even the most sophisticated of us can no longer stomach a model who isn't sculpted and waxed into improbable perfection? Or does our readiness to associate amateur-looking shots of barely dressed young people with child pornography suggest we're the perverts?

It's this sort of head-spinning, unwinnable argument that American Apparel wants us to have with ourselves. It's an argument I was almost willing to concede until I saw two new photographs that went up over the store on Sunset Boulevard. They depict a man in his 60s or 70s with sunglasses and a Rosacea-tinged face. His gaze, both solicitous and oddly indifferent, points generally toward images of two very young-looking, scantily dressed and provocatively posed girls. In my mind, there's no doubt what each represent: a paying customer and sex-industry workers.

When I called American Apparel to ask who the man was, a spokesman told me that no one knew, that the photo came from a stock collection, and that the design team just thought it looked cool.

So I guess that does make me a pervert. And just when I'd gotten used to being a prudish, old biddy.

Contact Meghan Daum at mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Posted by: danny bee on September 8, 2007 02:00 AM

One night, I'll find a crystal clear lake, I'll drop all my clothing, and dance across the water with a form I have rehearsed in my mind for ages. I'll probably be thinking these lyrics in my head--

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night.
I'm not sure all these people understand.
It's not like years ago,
The fear of getting caught,
of recklessness and water.
They cannot see me naked.
These things, they go away,
replaced by everyday.

Despite whatever meaning the author assigned to those words.

I don't think that makes me an exhibitionists, but you never know when someone is in the bushes and what they are thinking. But if I keep on saying they cannot see me naked, they'll see the nothing, won't they?

Posted by: nancy on September 10, 2007 10:46 AM

I don't think american apparel ads to be that bad.
It's just a different way of advertising. Sure of them are kind of taken too far but I mean it's all controversial for a reason. All this gets people talking and hence more people know of the clothes which leads to more buyers because it is soo talked about. Anyways thats how I see it and the fact that your calling it child pornography theres a french expression that is " Hey on se calme la" more quebecer in fact but still nonetheless. You shouldn't get so mad about these things, it just isn't worth it. Well I mean this is my point of view...

(sorry for any mistakes ;) lol)

Posted by: Spencer on October 1, 2007 09:37 AM

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