“By sexualising a phrase reserved for labelling clothes, we see exploitation at its most provocative” (Nandini Islam, 2014).
This advert by American Apparel operates under the guise of being a protest, but in reality it is shameless self-promotion. This is not the first of the clothing company’s controversial advertising campaigns. In the past eyebrows have been raised over the overtly sexualised nature of their ads, the use of a 65-year old lingerie model and the display of pubic hair on shop mannequins. None of these promotions are necessarily a bad thing, but it must always be remembered that American Apparel is a business. The words ‘Made in Bangladesh’ refer to the model in the photo; 22 year-old Maks is a merchandiser for AA, she was born in Bangladesh but has lived in California since the age of four. The aim of the advert is to draw attention to the fact that American Apparel’s garments are manufactured in downtown L.A. and not downtown Dhaka.
The advert relies on the audience having prior knowledge of the issues surrounding garment manufacture in Bangladesh. Tragedies such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed over 1000 people in 2013, mean that more consumers are aware of the poor working conditions in some clothing factories. However, without this prior knowledge the advert appears to criticise all garment manufacture in Bangladesh, with little nuance for the intricacies of the ethics involved. Even with a little background knowledge the advert provides no explanation of their condemnation of garment manufacture in Bangladesh. A typically reductionist approach, the ad boasts that the jeans were crafted by, "23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare”. How lucky for those workers in the USA – the wealthiest country in the world – to have such a fair workplace. Shaming the workers in Bangladesh, as this ad does, has a detrimental impact on their fight for safer working conditions and reasonable wages. Instead AA should be campaigning for other Western clothing manufacturers to provide their workers with a fair living wage, not discouraging consumers from buying clothes manufactured in Bangladesh. Boycotting those factories will not solve the problem.
In keeping with the American Apparel trend the ad contains a bio about the model. Maks was born into a strict Islamic family in Bangladesh before they moved to California when she was four. ‘She continued following her parent’s religious traditions and sustained her Islamic faith throughout her childhood.’ The relevance of the model’s religiosity is not quite clear, apart from upping the controversial nature of the ad – the topless young woman in conflict with her faith – the move seems desperate. Would the ad not have grabbed enough headlines had her conservative Muslim family not got a mention? Almost in anticipation of the criticism expected for using a young topless female model the bio also states that, ‘Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot’. The message: she's cool with it so you should be too. Chill out, man.
The high waisted jeans, which are supposedly what is being advertised, are barely visible suggesting that AA prioritises it’s ethics above its products. Whilst manufacturing clothes ethically may give American Apparel the moral high ground, unfortunately it does not equal profits. In 2013 the company made a net loss for the year, $122.1 million, compared with a $37.2 million net loss for 2012. The dismal financial results may go some way towards explaining the clumsy and frantic attempt to drum up controversy, and therefore publicity, in this advertisement. American Apparel had an opportunity to educate consumers about the garment manufacturing industry, but sacrificed this at the altar of self-interest. It is not a strategy that will work in the long run.