Abercrombie & Fitch was founded in New York City on June 4, 1892, by David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch. Set up as a supplier of camping, hiking and other sporting goods, it first established a reputation for its tents, fishing rods and shotguns. After filing for bankruptcy, though, the company closed in 1977. Oshman’s Sporting Goods bought the name and then relaunched the company as a high-end source of hunting wear and related novelties, with shops in New York City, Dallas and Beverly Hills. Oshman’s sold the name and the structure to The Limited. Now, Abercrombie & Fitch sells clothes – any links to its origins in hiking and camping goods are only found in the images in its catalogs and in store displays. Today, the business’ primary competition comes from other clothiers trying to target the same niche, such as American Eagle and Aeropostale. In 2010, Abercrombie & Fitch reported sales of almost $3 billion.
The Psychology of Everyday Persuasion. Marketing departments live and die by their ability to manipulate the responses of others. Over the centuries, researchers have gone to considerable lengths to do this in a number of ways. For example, Franz Anton Mesmer thought that each of has what he termed an “animal fluid” that ran through us. This fluid could control our behavior, and its movement could also be taken as an indicator of our health, according to Mesmer. In his sessions with his research subjects, he would move magnets over their bodies to move this fluid in different directions. He thought that the changes in this fluid’s movement could be used to manipulate the person’s behavior. Despite the fact that a committee of the best scientific minds of the day, including such luminaries as Antoine Lavoisier and Benjamin Franklin, could find no independent proof that animal fluid existed or that some sort of magnetic field would influence it, Mesmer’s followers believed it – and tried to add such features as voice activation to its possibilities.
Abercrombie & Fitch has run into some controversy over its desire to capture market share by the use of ad campaigns that go after primal instincts. In past campaigns, for example, the company has marketed thong underwear to ten-year-olds, and its ongoing campaigns feature scantily clad males and females in outdoor settings – adding a charge of sexuality to the company’s roots in the outdoors. The human visual response to scenes that involve some degree of nudity can be a powerful one – that is why so many different clothiers (and other companies) try to use it. Think about it – perfumes, colognes, and even alcoholic beverages, are sold with the use of these sorts of images. We respond to them instinctively – in the case of Abercrombie & Fitch, the pictures are inside our mind when we shop, whether online or in a brick-and-mortar location. Whether we consciously refer to these images or not is unimportant; their latent eroticism lurks in our unconscious, influencing our opinions about each piece of clothing. If we feel that the clothing in question will increase our sexual appeal to others, we are more likely to buy it. If a store’s ad campaign features many models whom we find to be sexually attractive, then we are more likely to head to that store, whether or reasoning is, on a deeper level, to see more images from that store, or to make ourselves as attractive as the people in the commercials.
Pre-Persuasion: Setting the Stage for Effective Influence. Words and slogans can hold a great deal of power in relation to the product that they are marketing. If you sit down with a group of children and teens, reading off to them lists of products that have widely played advertisements on television or on the radio, your audience will be able to rattle off the slogans for those products simply from the act of listening – even if they never have any intentions of purchasing those products, the truth is that they wll remember those slogans. Repeated exposure to the same information, over and over again, buries that information in the audience’s unconscious. Over time, those slogans will surface in the consumer’s mind and interact with purchase decisions.
Abercrombie & Fitch’s theme “Casual Living” paints a picture in the shopper’s mind, long before that shopper enters the store. In addition to the pictures I discussed in the last section, this campaign seeks to establish Abercrombie & Fitch clothing as a necessary element in a casual, comfortable collection of upscale clothing that might appear in any home – until you look more closely at the campaign. If you check the prices, you quickly learn that these images won’t appear in most homes, because the people who live there can’t afford them. However, this exclusivity is attractive to shoppers in the niche that Abercrombie & Fitch targets, and so what starts out as a slogan that could apply to just about any sort of residence takes on the meaning of a signifier of wealth or status that most cannot attain.
Communicator Credibility: Real and Manufactured. Whether a company’s credibility is genuine or is simply the result of solid marketing (or, as is the case many times, both are true), it is up to a company’s marketing department to control the expression of that credibility. One purpose of a solid marketing plan, including several different facets, is to make the client company appear to be a cornerstone of credibility, not just in its market but in the niche.
Most upscale customers remember at least the second incarnation of Abercrombie & Fitch, with its expensive shooting pieces and its high-end clothing that still, in that incarnation, focused on time in the actual outdoors. By keeping the name and some pictures of the outdoors, the current edition of the company can hearken back to days gone by, making some older shoppers nostalgic and more likely to stop by the shop to see if the ambience is the same as it was in the 1980’s. By making the people in the pictures look affluent and confident, Abercrombie & Fitch by extension creates the impression that it is a healthy company – even a desirable one, and definitely one from whom the shopper should purchase clothes. The living situations of the models in the pictures (and those models, by the way, are all Abercrombie & Fitch employees) create a sense of affluence and confidence that connect to wants and needs that the reader has, and the rest is price comparison.
The Message and How it is Delivered. Abercrombie & Fitch has moved into some of the most creatively challenging advertising media out there, creating short commercial “movies” that offer their directors, at least ostensibly, minor freedoms in directing these short videos. The subjects, of course, are superficial in nature; the characters are all dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch and show their garments off to full effect. Add this to the “Casual Living” slogan plastered all over the billboard areas where the upscale shoppers will see them, and you see a lifestyle notion planted in the minds and hearts of the target niche. Pairing these lifestyle videos with still shots in print ads gives the viewer a sense of what Abercrombie & Fitch believes its clothing can do for people (or at least accessorize) and encourages the viewer to agree with the company. After all, the clothes look comfortable and stylish, and seeing them in a variety of settings maximizes the number of places in the viewer’s visual cortex that the images of Abercrombie & Fitch, and the possibilities its clothes represent, can occupy, whence they can influence purchasing decisions.
Emotional Appeals: Touch the Heart, Persuade the Mind. If you’re familiar at all with the Star Trek saga, then you know that the primary challenge for the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock is to overcome his extremely Stoic upbringing, that forbade the consideration of emotions in making decisions, in a world occupied predominantly by humans. He learns, as do the show’s viewers, that while logic is certainly helpful, it is not the primary calculus that drives the decisions that people make. Emotions are more primal and visceral, and our emotional responses are often the first ones. When it comes to purchasing clothes, we want to buy things that will make us feel better – sexier, more beautiful or handsome, more professional, depending on the context of the clothes in our lives. In other words, we want a marketing campaign that will reach us affectively if we are to go out and buy a company’s clothing line.
As mentioned earlier, Abercrombie & Fitch is attempting to create a lifestyle brand with its clothing. The people who wear Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, the campaign suggests, are wealthy enough to have copious amounts of leisure time, in which they can take part in the frolic that makes up much of the visual imagery in the print-based catalogs as well as the video. We want to live like these people, particularly in regard to the level of affluence that they share. If we can afford clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch, then we should be able to live lives filled with trips to the outdoors – camping and hiking, but also upscale evenings out with friends and/or family. If someone followed us around with a digital camera, in other words, the pictures that they would take would look just like the pictures in the catalog, because we would be living the Abercrombie & Fitch lifestyle.
An alternative to the hypotheses present would be that Abercrombie & Fitch wants to create a brand that aims at families, and that its marketing campaign simply seeks to be family friendly. The sheer number of children in its ads would support this, as these children appear in wonderful clothing that is appropriate for the situation. Of course, those ads that target these children in adult ways have turned into a problem. Another way to look at this is to consider the outdoor emphasis that has helped the family since Day One – children spend, on average, way too much time being babysat by the television or hooked up to a game system.
As advertising campaigns take advantage of the ability to post not only still images but audio and video files through social media, in addition to the traditional print and television/radio sources, their campaigns will become increasingly sophisticated. It will be important for those studying and analyzing marketing to look at the agendas behind the advertisements. Why, for example, would Abercrombie & Fitch market padded training bra tops to seven-year-old children, who are several years away from puberty and are basically just learning to survive a school day? By creating a sexual atmosphere at an age where viewers are still too young to grasp it fully, and by using the misguided sensibilities of a shopping public too worn out by overall controversy for the customer to wake up and protest, Abercrombie & Fitch has created a sort of Pleasure Island of companies working together. The problem that some have had with the company is their lack of apology for using what might be viewed as prurient images in an attempt to gain market share. The opportunity given by essays such as this one is to educate the public on the trends in advertising and marketing, and to give the reader the sense that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to marketing. More importantly, it also communicates the sense that the consumer is not alone – that there others willing to step in and help with purchasing decisions.