Abercrombie marketing strategy? Meanness

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries told Salon.com that a certain body type belongs in his brand's clothing. Winter Park shoppers respond to Jeffries' comments.

The secret's out.

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries isn't just selling sex to your teenagers. He's teaching them how to be first-class jerks.

That's just as unsettling as the in-your-face, nearly nude pubescent images he uses to sell A&F jeans, short shorts and flip flops.

What's really at the heart of the business model for this 68-year-old chief executive, who styles his dyed-blond hair short and spiky like Ryan Seacrest on Medicare, is cutthroat sixth-grade-level meanness.

Classic "build-yourself-up-by-tearing-others-down" bluster.

Eleven-year-olds are masters at this. Oh, how I wanted to go to the popular girl's birthday party. But my invitation never came. And never did she seem cooler than when I was excluded.

Most 11-year-olds grow up to look back and laugh at their juvenile power games.

Jeffries never did. He's still trying too hard to be part of the in-crowd ("Dude, I'm not an old fart who wears his jeans up at his shoulders" he was quoted as saying when asked why he dyes his hair blond).

And shame on America, he's gotten rich doing it.

A&F has been wildly successful, and last year Jeffries' total compensation topped $48 million.

But lots of parents now want to boot him from the cool-kid lunch table after comments he made back in 2006 resurfaced last week. A Business Insider story about why Abercrombie doesn't make clothes in sizes XL and XXL for girls (though it does for boys) included this now-viral quote.

"In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids," he told Salon.com in 2006. "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. 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."

Congratulations, Mr. Jeffries. You've just excited a whole lot of people into not buying your brand.

One mom famously packed up her daughters' A&F clothes and shipped them back to Jeffries.

"Normally I donate our unwanted clothes, but in this case, I wouldn't want any unsuspecting thin, cool person to send the message that being exclusionary is OK," she wrote in her note to the CEO.

That could just be the beginning. Doesn't Jeffries know that the Country Club attitude is fading nationwide — and not just because people are upside down on their McMansions.

There's far more awareness about obesity. It's a nationwide epidemic. A medical problem that needs to be addressed through education and prevention. Not a belittling CEO.

This isn't Abercrombie's first run-in with parents who have questioned his methods for selling polo shirts, ripped jeans and T-shirts.

Past dust-ups about thongs marketed to children, a catalog that was compared to child pornography and even a lawsuit brought by minority employees about discrimination seemed to fade like last year's fashion trends.

"Listen, do we go too far sometimes? Absolutely," he also said in 2006. "But we push the envelope, and we try to be funny, and we try to stay authentic and relevant to our target customer. I really don't care what anyone other than our target customer thinks."

But the company's core belief — scorn sells — looks unbecoming even on the popular kids.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448

CHICAGO

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