LDS Consumers and the Apparel Industry - Are Your Purchases Promoting Pornography?

"The way you dress is a reflection of what you are on the inside. Your dress and grooming send messages about you to others and influence the way you and others act." For the Strength of Youth, p. 14.

You are what you wear. Not long ago, I saw two startling examples. A criminal defendant, charged with drunk driving, came to court to enter his plea. To the astonishment of everyone in the courtroom, he wore a tee-shirt advertising a popular beer brand. Didn't he realize the inappropriateness of his shirt? Amid snickers in the courtroom, the annoyed judge sternly warned the defendant to dress differently for his next court appearance.

Later that same week, a couple of teenage girls were at the gym. One was dressed in loose-fitting sweat pants and a baggy t-shirt - quite modest compared to the popular "spandex and skin" look. But printed on her t-shirt were a woman's silhouette and the brand name "Hustler." I was shocked that a young girl would wear that shirt. What was she thinking?

Does she know that Hustler magazine graphically displays deviant sexual behavior? Does she know that its founder Larry Flynt is the most notorious pornographer in U.S. history? Did it occur to her that she was a walking billboard for sleaze and aggressive sexual behavior? Did she realize her shirt invites assumptions about her sexual attitudes? Do her parents know she owns that shirt?

Pornographic marketing of apparel - a case study

Most parents wouldn't let their children wear pornographic brand clothing. Or would they?

Recently, the manager of an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Virginia was criminally cited for obscenity. Local police received complaints about explicit photographs displayed in the A&F store. Upon investigation, an officer found two offending posters - one a picture of a shirtless male model exposing the top of his buttocks and another of a topless woman partially covering her breasts with her hands. The police officer determined that the posters violated the city's obscenity ordinance, and warned the manager to remove them.

When the officer returned a day or two later, the pictures were still displayed. So he issued a citation and confiscated the posters. The national media widely reported the incident.

So why didn't A&F remove the posters? Because A&F profits greatly from its long-standing use of sex and pornography to market its apparel. The controversy immediately generated national publicity. A&F received millions of dollars worth of free advertising from the news media, as thousands of customers visited the nearest store to check out the revealing pictures.

It may seem illogical that the best way to sell clothing is to show models not wearing any. Especially when the clothing itself is reasonably modest. But it's hard to argue with the financial results. In 2007, A&F sales were $3.75 billion, up 13% from 2006, in an otherwise tough market for the apparel industry. A recent business article referred to A&F's success as "genius."

The incident in Virginia is hardly the first time A&F has come under fire for sexualized marketing. In 2002, A&F marketed pre-teen thong underwear printed with suggestive phrases such as "eye candy." In recent years, A&F t-shirts have caused controversy by referencing such topics as incest and women's breasts.

A&F's most infamous venture into pornography was its quarterly catalog, discontinued after the Christmas 2003 edition caused a huge uproar. That edition featured 45 pictures of nude or semi-nude models and did not begin advertising clothing until page 120. The pictures portrayed group sex, gay kissing, and teenage sexual activity. And as if the pictures were not enough, an article in the catalog encouraged a variety of sexual experimentation. Despite A&F's claim that the magazine was sold only to adults, the attorney general of one state documented sales to pre-teens. The catalog was discontinued after a pro-family group published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal aimed at informing A&F investors of a boycott.

So what's next for A&F? It recently announced the creation of a line of lingerie to be sold in a new store targeting its young customer base. It's hard to imagine how revealing that marketing campaign will be. And A&F has announced that its controversial catalog will be made available once again in the United Kingdom.

While A&F is definitely a high-profile apparel industry leader in pornographic marketing, it is hardly alone. For many years, fashion magazines have contained revealing and sexualized photographs. Recently, a French apparel company decided to include graphic sexual videos on its website as a part of its marketing campaign. For years, Victoria's Secret's racy television commercials have caused a stir.

How tempting are profits from sexualized marketing? In 2007, a Utah County billboard for a purportedly modest shirt company resorted to innuendo, featuring "tease" (a clever play on "t-shirts') and the tag line "cover your assets" next to a drawing of a woman pulling down a long shirt over her emphasized backside.

What are LDS consumers doing (or wearing)?

When it comes to A&F, some pro-family and religious groups have been pro-active. Citizens for Community Values published the Wall Street Journal advertisement that put at least a temporary end to the A&F catalog. The National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, the American Decency Association and Focus on the Family all have been vocal critics. Bob Jones University and other religious schools have forbidden A&F apparel on their campuses or have boycotted A&F.

What about the LDS community?

For years LDS consumers have complained that it was difficult to find modest apparel. Low-rise pants, short-shorts and immodest tops made shopping difficult even for young girls. The bare-midriff problem was so pervasive that a friend once told me that he was tired of having to avert his eyes when he walked down the hall in church.

However, apparel companies make a lot of money when styles change every year. For the past two years, industry-wide fashions have been their most modest in decades. Understandably LDS consumers have been elated, with many more choices for modest apparel in many locations. But the shift towards modesty is temporary. Fashions will inevitably and quickly cycle back to less modest styles.

While LDS apparel consumers focus on modesty, pornographic advertising is rarely considered. A few years ago my wife and I were asked to speak to a group of business students at Brigham Young University. Among the topics we discussed was pornography in the apparel industry. Many students to whom we spoke wore clothing displaying the A&F brand name. Many more were wearing A&F apparel with the label safely hidden inside. Can you imagine the reaction of the Honor Code office if one of those students had come to class in a Playboy shirt? A&F shirts are different only in degree, yet they can be seen all over the BYU campus.

It is true that, as compared to direct sellers of pornography like Playboy, pornography by apparel retailers is secondary to its primary purpose of selling clothing. But does it matter whether pornography is sold as the primary product, or whether it is given for free in the effort to sell a different product? Maybe the only difference between wearing a Hustler t-shirt and an A&F t-shirt is that parents don't know that A&F is a pornographer.

Church leaders do not tell Church members where to shop. They teach correct principles and let LDS consumers govern themselves. While Church members are sensitive to whether apparel is modest, many patronize retailers that profit from pornographic and sexualized marketing. Perhaps we could do better in our self-governance.

Why do LDS consumers tolerate pornographic marketing?

I once asked my uncle, a stake president in Utah, the biggest problem he faced with the members of his stake. Before I could finish the question, he replied "Pornography." How do Mormons view the pornography epidemic?

With moral issues, Church members tend to focus on personal righteousness and Church activity, rather than community activism. Abortion is a good example. Church members are firmly anti-abortion, but you don't see anyone in your ward organizing a picket of Planned Parenthood.

If you ask a Church member to describe the problem of pornography and its solution, the answer may be "Pornography is the sin of someone viewing pornographic images, and the solution is repentance." Conversely stated, this is the same as saying "Pornography is not my issue because I don't view it."

But that attitude ignores two truths when purchasing and wearing apparel from companies that use pornographic marketing. First, we send the message to our family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances and strangers that we support the brand image even if pornographic. Second, we tell the pornographer that their immoral advertising works.

If you ask an anti-pornography activist outside the Church the same question, the response may be that pornography is the widespread dissemination of pornographic images; that it adversely affects the community; and that the solution is to create a social, economic and political climate that makes it difficult for the pornographer to do business. This broad view acknowledges we tolerate our pornographic environment, and that we have the power and responsibility to change it.

Maybe Church members are not more involved in the community on moral issues because we are defeatist. Since we believe that the world will become ever-increasingly evil, do we accept too easily that community standards will deteriorate?

Can Church members change the apparel industry?

World-wide fashion trends have never been caused by an LDS teenager writing a complaint letter to Dillard's. That kind of activism may occasionally catch the attention of a public relations department or make the newspaper, but has no impact on fashion trends, production or marketing.

The apparel industry is dominated by profit-driven, publicly-traded companies that have no institutional sense of morality. Fashions originate in a handful of world cities, where young adult women create trends followed by fashion designers and mass-market apparel producers. Most of the resulting apparel is produced by conglomerates that make huge quantities of clothing for international distribution. They are not concerned with the needs and desires of local communities, and will continue to sell immodest styles and advertise using pornography so long as it is profitable.

If LDS consumers are to have any impact on apparel trends and advertising, it will only be through economic power. But Church members are an insignificantly small percentage of the global customer base of major apparel producers. A&F is unlikely to change its marketing strategies even if no Church member ever bought another A&F product.

LDS consumers, however, are not completely helpless. Where there are large concentrations of Church members, LDS consumers have enough economic strength to prevent objectionable retailers or brands from doing business in their community. While A&F may never change its advertising in response to LDS consumers, it would not keep open its Provo Utah store for very long if no LDS teenager or college student ever shopped there.

LDS consumers also can use their economic power to support the fledgling modest apparel industry. Modest clothing companies, mostly based in Utah, have sprung up over the last ten years in response to immodest trends. These companies have as core principles modesty both in product and marketing.

Right now modest clothing companies are boutiques, not a large-scale alternative for LDS consumers. These companies are generally small, family-owned and under-capitalized. They lack economies of scale in production and advertising, and suffer from lack of brand awareness and acceptance. Their product lines are limited and wide-scale distribution is difficult. And in the past two years, the modest apparel industry has been weakened by LDS consumers taking advantage of the temporary trend toward modesty in the larger apparel industry.

What would happen if Church members shifted their economic weight behind the modest apparel industry? If every dollar spent by LDS consumers with pornographic apparel producers instead flowed to the modest apparel industry, that industry would multiply many times directly benefiting LDS consumers. Both the number of products and the ability to distribute those products would increase. Over time, the modest apparel companies could provide all kinds of modest apparel for the entire family without pornographic or sexualized marketing.

With the help of LDS consumers, eventually some modest apparel companies might grow big enough to attract the attention of the larger industry, which always looks to acquire up-and-coming brands or imitate new niche markets. With their money, LDS consumers could eventually demonstrate to the apparel industry that there is a profitable segment of consumers who warrant modest clothing without pornographic marketing.

So, what's in your closet?

Copyright 2008 J. Scott Askew

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