American Apparel’s Best Bottom Contest

Curator: Timothy Goodman
date: July 27, 2011
Categories: Experience Design

In the last eight years, American Apparel’s president and CEO, Dov Charney, has created a clothing phenomenon by breaking all the rules.

AA is the largest clothing manufacturer in the United States. They do their own design and advertising, and Charney makes all product development and creative decisions himself. He was nominated as a Time 100 finalist by Time magazine in 2009 and has won numerous awards in both fashion and marketing.

Nonetheless, Charney and the company have been surrounded by a tremendous amount of controversy: sexual harassment lawsuits, racial discrimination lawsuits, immigration issues and even a Woody Allen lawsuit. Charney’s immodest advertising has always captured attention, usually done in-house, and sometimes in his own house, where he shoots many of the photos. 

So it’s not a surprise that AA’s last endeavor was both unexpected and provocative. Just over a year ago, American Apparel released the Best Bottom Contest. It was an open call for both men and women to send in pics of their booty wearing AA goods, wherein you or I were asked to vote for the best bum online. More than 1,300 people sent in pictures of their bums, and the two winners were flown out to LA for a photo shoot and featured online. As you can imagine, it garnered a tremendous amount of controversy, including a protestation outside the NYU store.

Tacky? Crude? Indecent? Offensive? Sexist for its objectification of women?

If by evaluation, you use one of the formulas my colleagues and I used at COLLINS—that is, by asking what’s both authentic to a company and relevant to culture—then this contest hits brand authenticity right on the bum. What’s authentic to American Apparel? What’s relevant to our current culture? Both answers are the same: young people, sex, and the need for exposure and fame. The strategy was to be bold and controversial—and it worked.

Sure, sex sells. However, Charney does a good job staying authentic to his brand, while driving home a firsthand experience with his customers. It’s participatory without having to leave your own house. He doesn’t have to sell you anything—he’d rather make you experience his brand. The leading girl, with almost four million views in just over three weeks, was a sure example of this.

Note: I don't necessarily “envy” this submission, nor do I condone the objectification of women. I am, however, compelled by provocative campaigns that become successful based off the tools we deploy in the branding and advertising world.
  • jana brubaker

    You tweeted “but are they also effective” designs? Depends what we mean by effective. Was the goal to sell more product? Did it work? Or did this campaign offend more customers than it gained? Is the point to sell more product? Or is the point simply to gain more attention for the designer and the brand? What does this campaign tell us about our narcissistic longing for attention? How else might we gauge the design’s effectiveness? Given child sexual abuse statistics, let us hope that the winning “girl” was chronologically a woman. What about the winning man? What does this campaign tell us about sexism and heterosexism in our culture? Who is the intended audience? What is this designer’s individual contribution to our culture of rape? What is American Apparel’s social responsibility? Does giving further attention to this campaign meet AIGA’s mandate of social responsibility?

  • Chelse D.

    I’ll do my best not to go on a feminist rant, but I can’t promise anything– I think the missing element of this article, perhaps, is that American Apparel has a reputation for sexism in the workplace and outside of it. THAT is not good design.

  • BT

     I personally do not find American Apparel’s marketing effective. No matter how appealing I might think one of their articles of clothing is, I cannot bring myself to open my wallet to a company that so openly exploits women.

  • Anonymous

    In the third paragraph, Tim mentions the sexual harassment lawsuits.

  • cristy

    Fact is, American Apparel’s marketing is NOT working. Their profits are plummeting, market share declining, and interest among their target market is waning. Of course this could be due to any number of reasons, but surely negative public image, reputation for sexism and discrimination, overkill advertising (it’s everywhere) and exponentially-growing dilution of what was once a concise and refreshingly simple product line.

    SO: “However, Charney does a
    good job staying authentic to his brand, while driving home a firsthand
    experience with his customers. ” meh… I guess. I find it tacky and unoriginal, and it doesn’t seem to have accomplished anything in terms of hard numbers.

  • Laura M.

    Am I supposed to be envious because they made a plain gallery template?  Oh, but kudos for using a sans serif font, really, it’s so rarely used.

  • Mary

    I’m kind of disappointed that my first exposure to this forum is this campaign. Shades of GoDaddy.

  • ellebee

    American Apparel’s founder is named Dov Charney, not Don.

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