Abercrombie & Fitch’s quarterly “catalogue” was something of an obsession—for everyone—when I was in high school. It’s not real hard to see why. It was porn that your parents didn’t realize was porn, the word catalogue notwithstanding (at least until they saw the cover for the 2002 Christmas issue on the right).
As these things go, controversy ensued and the less sophisticated asked, almost sarcastically, how do you sell clothes when your “catalogue” is full of naked people? Apparently, you sell them very well. Science says so.
Among academics, naked people are not exactly the hot research topic you might think they’d be. Still, a number of researchers going back decades have looked at how nudity in advertisements affects consumers. Unfortunately, their results haven’t always been consistent. In general, though, naked people sell with just a few caveats. In a recent study at the University of Adelaide in Australia, for example, researchers noted that while naked people in ads tend to be a bit, distracting, they still had a positive effect on things like attitude toward the advertisement and the brand.
This was Abercrombie’s secret. The thing that outraged our non-marketing genius parents was the thing that made us buy our clothes (disclosure: I never bought their clothes). We looked at these Abercrombie ads and associated these stunning naked models with their brand, so, as it goes in human logic, if we associated ourselves with their brand by wearing their clothes, we’d become as awesome and cool and hot and sex-having (allegedly) as these models. Why our parents couldn’t get that, I’ll never know. Underwear companies have built empires doing the same thing with their own ads for years, even before Abercrombie became notorious. Is there really any wonder why H&M put David Beckham in a pair of boxer briefs for its ads? A lot of guys in their target market wouldn’t mind being a little more like Beckham, I’m sure, and if it only takes 10 pounds, then it’s probably worth a shot. Has there ever been a clothed model in a Calvin Klein ad?
But that’s another key point, reinforced by what researchers found in the Adelaide study. Nudity works best in ads where we expect the nudity. You can’t sell underwear without showing a little skin, right? Ratchet sets? Nudity doesn’t quite sell those as well, probably because there’s not logical connection between the tool and the naked body (pun sort of intended there). They found, specifically, nudity appeals tended to work for ads for things like jeans because we associate clothes with various stages of dress. Their findings add weight to the case for Abercrombie’s genius. Of course, Abercrombie probably took it too far—some research suggest there’s a fine line: complete and total naked people (like those in Abercrombie’s Quarterly) don’t seem to sell as well as partially clothed models, like the kind you often see in underwear ads. Abercrombie has also turned out to be an ethically horrible company whose brand has taken a well-deserved beating in recent years, but that’s whole other issue. Anyway, controversy over the Christmas issue in 2003 (pictured at top)—which, was so naked and sex-filled it was almost laughable—is widely considered to be the Quarterly’s death knell. They’d finished shooting the next issue in Rome, but never released it.
Seven years later, in 2010, Abercrombie published a special back-to-school Quarterly, but most people barely batted an eyebrow at it (see above re: people realizing that Abercrombie is a stunningly evil conglomeration of capitalism, racism and, well, you know, everything that’s wrong with America). Launching a magazine in 2010? Not exactly a great business strategy, even if it was softcore porn for teens. Plus, technology has changed and Abercrombie’s target market has much cheaper, freer access to much more explicit sex and nudity than we ever did in high school. In other words, while I’m sure Abercrombie used the Quarterly because of its shock value—the science backing it notwithstanding—by 2010 it was, for most kids, a yawn.
Don’t worry though, nudity in varying degrees is still pretty much a part of the company’s culture.
They’re hardly the only ones, however. For example, what, exactly, is Tom Ford selling here? He’s selling Tom Ford. And he’s doing it with science, like it or not.
Oh, and if you’re really interested, you can snag a copy of one of Abercrombie’s catalogues on Ebay… for $50 – $100.