Today my facbeook and twitter feeds were bombarded with reposts of the clever come-back video by Greg Karber in response to Abercrombie & Fitch. In case you missed it, there has been a quite storm of rage brewing towards Abercombie' & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries for the fact that the store doesn’t carry sizes beyond Large (10) because he doesn’t want fat people wearing the brand. Jeffries has been quoted as saying:
That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people.
With this in mind, initially I found myself grinning at the #FitchtheHomeless video. I mean, who doesn’t love an underdog taking on a douchetastic corporation? The video was subversive and creative, and I was thirilled to see that Abercrombie’s brand was getting more public scorn. I’ve been following Abercrombie’s shenanigans for years and I’ve long though it was time for a little push-back. I thought they deserved it when they suggested minorities didn’t fit their “classic image” to the point that they were sued for it, with employees claiming they “hired a disproportionately white sales force, put minorities in less-visible jobs and cultivated a virtually all-white image in its catalogs and elsewhere.” I thought they deserved for for their religious intolerance of a Muslim employee. And the fact that they burn unsold merchandise to avoid it getting in the wrong, off-brand hands? YES. Let’s mock this company and pass it on. Please.
But as I watched, I started to have a gut-check about this #FitchtheHomeless “campaign”. Karber’s suggestion for taking on Abercrombie & Fitch? Give A&F clothing to the homeless. Raid your closet, he suggests in the video. Raid your neighbor’s closet. Raid the thrift store. Then donate all those clothes to a homeless shelter.
In the video, he then goes on to walk through Skid Row, passing out A&F clothes to unsuspecting homeless people. At some points, he practically tosses the clothing at people. And of course, he films it. And then encourages us to do the same. It’s got all the makings of a viral campaign. But there are a few fundamental problems with the execution:
1. It perpetuates the prejudice of the Abercrombie CEO. The video implies some sort of social caste system in which homeless people are on the bottom. This kind of juvenile social stratification is exactly what enraged everyone about Jeffrie’s initial quote in Salon: “We go after the cool kids. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.” How do we trade one douche move (making clothes unavailable for the overweight to protect a brand) for another (making clothes available to the poor to defame a brand)? In both cases, we are marginalizing people.
2. It is insulting, not charitable. Not all homeless people are in need of clothing, and even those who are still have preferences related to size, comfort, and even personal choice. The way he is just throwing clothing at people, without asking their name, or getting to know their needs, or even ascertaining if the item in his hand will fit, is a prime example of when helping hurts .
3. It’s using the homeless a props and inviting others to do the same. This campaign is not social protest. This is a gimmick – an exploitive gimmick – that preys on the homeless as props. It’s cruel and dehumanizing.
4. It’s encouraging poverty tourism of the worst kind. The video made me cringe, but I was really troubled when Garber suggested that others go and do the same, and then share via social media. I am just imagining scores of people invading their local homeless communities with cell phone cameras, throwing tacky shirts at them (or worse – asking them to pose in them). This is not the way to engage with the poor.
5. It doesn’t solve the sizism we’re railing against. One of Abercrombie’s worst offenses is their refusal to make their clothes available to women of larger sizes. At the same time, it has been reported that 1/3 of the homeless population struggle with obesity. So . . . are we only handing out Abercrombie clothing to THIN homeless people? We’re just going in circles now.
6. It solves NOTHING. It’s not effective social protest, it’s more of a smear campaign that doesn’t get at the root of the problem. The best way to effect change is to vote with our dollars, and to encourage others to do the same.
Speaking of voting with our dollars . . . Abercrombie has a children’s line. Surely we, as parents, could put them out of business? Let’s band together and refuse to shop there, and spread the word to other parents. Let’s refuse to buy our kids and teens clothing from their stores.
But let’s not involve the homeless.