Abercrombie, Fat Chicks & Polarization in Marketing


I don’t know if you’ve heard but Abercrombie and Fitch hates fat chicks. Actually, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard as it’s been blasted all over the Internet, the television and someone is probably about to pull a Baumgartner and jump from space they’re so mad about it.

And I get it. The remarks made by Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries are horrifying in the way that most of our high school experiences were horrifying. His comments reek of Mean Girls, with Jeffries now-famously quoted as saying:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he told the site. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Yeah. That happened.

As a woman with her own body issues, I find Jeffries comments hurtful, damaging and irresponsible. That’s my human, emotional reaction.

But as a brand…Abercrombie shows it understands the power of polarization to attract one audience (and get massive press), while completely putting off another. And that’s a lesson many of us could stand to learn – the power of polarization in marketing.

Here’s the thing, Abercrombie has never supported non-thin customers. I’d argue they don’t support the majority of customers, as their pant sizes don’t go above a 10. The comments made by Jeffries don’t change that. But his comments about how his clothes are for “the cool kids”, for “all-American kids” and for “people with lots of friends” resonate with his audience of tweens and young teens. These are the words these kids want so badly to associate with themselves and the brands they wear.  This is the audience Abercrombie attracts – the kids who are cool, the kids who want to be cool and the bullies who fall in between. It’s going to make them identify with the brand. It’s going to make them want to link themselves to the brand and create pride when they’re wearing the Abercrombie label. And if you think about, that’s who’s wearing Abercrombie’s clothes to begin with.

Now they’re just more empowered about it. Because they’re “in” and everyone else is “out”. That’s what Abercrombie represents, for better and for worse.

The comments will obviously also turn off a lot of other folks. It’s going to turn off kids who can’t buy the clothes anyway, it’s going to turn off their parents who could buy them and it’s going to turn people who don’t want to do business with companies that discriminate by size.

And all of that is okay. Actually, that is the point and it is called “marketing”.

Tucked inside Jeffries mass insults is actually a comment that is very important for businesses to not only hear, but to understand.

“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.”

The polarizing comments made by Jeffries? They epitomize the brand and the culture of the company he represents. And my guess is he knows that.

Saying something controversial that gets you lots of coverage and wins you favor in your target audience’s eyes. Smart marketing.

I could help but notice three words were often used in the comments blasting Jeffries statements.



This isn’t a new game.

I’ve written about the power of polarization in marketing before. I’ve written how those repulsive Jersey Shore kids used it to own their oddities, polarize an audience, create positive drama and build a platform. [Hell, Abercrombie and The Jersey Shore even decided to be polarizing together.] Sarah Palin has used it. Michael Jackson used it. Groupon used it (and then apologized for it) with its really bad Superbowl ads a couple years back.

Sometimes the polarization is intentional and other times it’s simply a result of your culture and your beliefs.

For example, you may remember last year when Chick-Fil-A stepped into a huge controversy after executives reaffirmed the company stance on supporting “traditional marriage”. The comments incited uproar among many, many groups but also gained the company support with its core audience. A Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day was even held and brought in record-setting sales from customers who support the company’s beliefs because they are the same beliefs as many of their customers. Right or wrong, whether you agree or not, it helped people to relate to the brand.

As a human, you can find Jeffries comments disgusting and shameful. You can use your power to never spend a cent in that store. I wouldn’t disagree with you.

But as a brand, I’d encourage you to look for opportunities to be polarizing and to find opportunities to use what is weird/different/unique to you.  Who do you represent and who are you trying to target? TARGET THEM HARDER by creating polarization between your group and the rest of the world. Go after them. Say things to identify with them. Draw your line in the sand that separates your group from everyone else’s. Own it, build drama around it and create your platform.

In doing that, yeah, you’re going to piss off a lot of people the same way Abercrombie has done here. But you’re also going to excite others. Excited people buy things.