Dear Abercrombie & Fitch: Is Creating a Situation REALLY a Win-Win?

This week, an MTV Jersey Shore cast member is making headlines once again, but this time with actual relevance to the public relations and branding realms. In turn, I’ve jumped at the opportunity to delve into my favorite television show (zero percent guilt about this) and its relationship to my profession.

In case you haven’t heard, all the buzz is about national clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch issuing a press release, announcing that they have offered compensation to Michael ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, to cease wearing their products. A spokesperson for the company explained that they are “deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino’s association with [their] brand could cause significant damage to [their] image…and may be distressing to many of [their] fans.”  The spokesperson goes on to say that A&F has offered a “substantial payment” not just to Sorrentino, but to the show’s producers and other cast members as well.

Branding by Association

First a country doesn’t want the Jersey Shore cast representing them and now a national clothing brand. Prior to yesteday’s events with A&F, the Jersey Shore cast and crew faced barriers entering Italy to film for their most recent season, as the country was hesitant to have its image tarnished and represented by booze-drinking, party-going Italian-Americans. The mayor of Florence eventually allowed MTV to film there, but not without a strict set of rules. As good PR people, we know it’s all about the audience. It’s understandable when Italy’s representatives did not want an American television show to promote the country in such a way that it doesn’t want to be identify as- the next wild destination for reality TV with drinking and partying. If they would like to be branded instead as a beautiful tourist destination, it only makes sense that Florence’s mayor imposed guidelines and ensured its brand was not tarnished with MTV’s clips of the cast and their wild antics.

With A&F though, I’m a bit baffled. When I think of their clothing line, specifically their controversial graphic t-shirts, I would think they would be absolutely ecstatic if the Jersey Shore cast paraded around with their logo, especially Sorrentino. Their target demographic is mostly teens, teens who watch the Jersey Shore.  On essentially every landing page of the Abercrombie.com site, you’re bound to be overwhelmed by images of men’s muscular abdomens. One would think that having A&F attire on a public figure with a similar physique would not be so “distressing” to fans. After all, A&F’s image represents youth, sexuality and a lot of partying. If they were a more buttoned up brand like J. Crew, then the request would make a little more sense.

What Warrants a Press Release?

Their press release headline was clever, “ABERCROMBIE & FITCH PROPOSES A WIN-WIN SITUATION.” But for our clients at PAN, press releases actually announce something and are typically reserved for more serious matters. For a consumer brand, it might be the announcement of a new line or a corporate partnership. However, press releases serve to inform and A&F’s release certainly did just that, while simultaneously creating quite a stir, which was likely their desired outcome. While we’ve been seeing more “fun” releases lately, think of April Fools Day releases, they usually still serve an appropriate purpose and are aimed at the right audience. For example, earlier this year, Groupon issued a release titled “Groupon Raises, Like, A Billion Dollars” and within the release, it noted that “Groupon has been called ‘the fastest growing company ever’ by Forbes Magazine and ‘America’s best website’ by one of Groupon’s television commercials.” This was genius. The press release and its title got the point across quickly, effectively and with humor. The key here is that this was actually news and the release offered substance.

Shameless vs. Brilliant

At the end of the day, PR pros are dying to know the answer: Was this truly a “Win-Win Situation?”  While it may be too soon to tell, luckily the Wall Street Journal has posted a poll, with currently over 12,000 respondents, asking if A&F’s gesture was good PR. As of today, there is no clear cut answer with 51.4% saying the move was brilliant, putting A&F into a better light. The other 48.6% voted that it was a shameless publicity stunt. Personally, what did I vote? I said it was a stunt. But, who knows? Time will tell. In the short term though, A&F’s stock price fell nearly 10% at one point on Wednesday after their Situation diss and finished nearly 8% lower for the day.

 

Another reason A&F’s actions don’t come across sincerely lies in their past – what audience were they trying to reach last summer when the company released “The Fitchuation” t-shirt? Business Insider even makes the point to say it seems like Sorrentino could have a case against A&F for tarnishing his brand. Nonetheless, the A&F vs. Jersey Shore debate continues to be a “situation” and I doubt the Jersey Shore brand has faltered. In fact, I’m even more eager to tune in for tonight’s episode and follow cast reactions on Twitter.

For more conversations on this topic, follow #Fitchuation on Twitter. What are your thoughts? Was this a smart move for A&F, just a publicity stunt, or maybe a little bit of both?