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Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (ANF) – “Sex Can Sell” Is a Fine Line to Walk: Victoria’s Secret Just Stumbled

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Abercrombie & Fitch Co (ANF)You’ve probably heard the slogan “Sex sells.” While it’s undoubtedly true in some circumstances, there are many situations where the opposite is true — sex alienates consumers. Take, for example, L Brands Inc (NYSE:LTD) Victoria’s Secret and its PINK “Bright Young Things” line. The official market for PINK is college-age girls; however, in January, Victoria’s Secret’s chief financial officer, Stuart Burgdoerfer, said: “When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at PINK.”

Not surprisingly, this comment sparked outrage, as parents were a bit uncomfortable with the idea of having their young daughters wearing risque bottoms with the words “Feeling Lucky?” emblazoned on the back. Although Victoria’s Secret responded to criticism by stating that the clothing line is not intended for young girls, the words of the CFO have done their damage. But what, if anything, does this mean for business?

Source: Randy Robertson, via Wikimedia Commons.

No, I don’t want my middle-schooler wearing risque underwear
Why would a company risk consumers’ wrath by creating a marketing campaign that seems aimed at underage girls? The answer: money. If a company thinks it’ll make more money by advertising a certain way, it’ll probably try it — much to the chagrin of parents.

In the case of Victoria’s Secret, such a cry of protest went up that the company quietly pulled many of the more provocative items from its online store. But even after that, many parents stated that they intend to continue boycotting Victoria’s Secret. Further, such boycotts may, or may not, have a visible impact on Victoria’s Secret’s bottom line right now, but this incident has definitely hurt the company’s image and reputation. And such a blow could definitely come back to bite the bottom line.

Is this an isolated incident?
Victoria’s Secret isn’t the only company to face consumers’ wrath over marketing. In 2011, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF) released a “push-up” bikini, originally intended for 7-year-olds and up. Parents were outraged, and the blowback forced Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF) to rename the bikini and announce that it was for 12-year-olds and up. In 2006, U.K. company Tesco Corporation (USA) (NASDAQ:TESO) came under fire for selling a stripper pole with the words “Unleash the sex kitten inside,” in its toys and games section. CNN Money named the company’s move one of the “101 Dumbest Moments in Business.”

How this can affect business
In addition to marketing inappropriate bikinis to underage girls, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF) made a reputation for itself by advertising with scantily clad male and female models. Parents expressed outrage, but Abercrombie failed to heed the warning. For a while, it looked as if the outrage was nothing more than bluster. But since 2008, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF) has seen a massive decline in operating profit. Yes, the economy took a downturn, but even now, with the economy improving, profits have failed to reach previous levels for Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE:ANF).

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