By Diane Brady You have to wonder who's charged with designing new-product lines over at Abercrombie & Fitch these days. Mere weeks after the Ohio-based retailer warded off protests for hawking T-shirts that depicted Asian cartoon characters with coolie hats and slogans like "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White," it comes out with thong underwear for preteen girls. And, in case leaving their bottoms bare isn't bad enough, girls as young as 10 years old get to advertise such slogans as "wink wink" and "eye candy" on what little fabric there is on the front of these sexy undies.
Is it bad taste? Sure. But the resulting outrage and controversy is overblown, to say the least. Suddenly, child psychologists and pundits from groups like the American Decency Assn. have essentially vilified Abercrombie as purveyors of child pornography. Some point out that girls as young as 5 years old (assuming they're big for their age) could fit into the undergarments, which allegedly turn wearers into sex objects and victims of lost innocence. On one talk show, a man even linked them to an increased incidence of rape.
Never mind that girls of 5, or 10, rarely go out and buy their own underwear. Rather than heap publicity on the buzz-seeking Abercrombie, the best response of parents and pundits is to simply vote with their pocketbooks.
BE LIKE BRITNEY. Of course, overwhelmed with e-mail and calls, the chastised retailer has started pulling the thongs off its shelves. It issued a statement, saying the line was "created with the intent to be lighthearted and cute." People who had never heard of the thongs now want to own one before they're all gone. Kids now know that Abercrombie makes sexy underwear -- and makes their parents angry.
The truth is that Abercrombie was probably onto something in coming out with thongs aimed at the 10- to 16-year-old crowd -- though the cheesy slogans no doubt crossed a line. As Jennifer Ganshirt of Frank About Women marketing consultancy says: "Like it or not, youth culture is highly sexualized." Low-rider jeans, crop tops, belly-button jewelry, and backless halters are what a lot of young women want to wear right now. Their friends wear them. Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez wear them.
Moreover, thongs have become a staple among women of all ages who want to feel attractive or avoid panty lines. For younger consumers, though, buying such items is more likely about wanting to look cool than feel sexy.
FOLLOWER OF FASHION. That was certainly the case two decades ago, when Brooke Shields shocked the world by saying nothing gets between her and her Calvin Klein jeans. My friends and I wanted a pair because, hey, if she looked good in them, maybe we would too. It didn't occur to us that she was suggesting we put them on without underwear. Unfortunately, many of us found that our mothers refused to buy them -- as much because of the designer price tag as the controversial image.
Today's parents have the same choice. Some will refuse to let their daughters strut around in thong underwear or more visible sexy clothing. Others reach for the lipstick and enroll their children in beauty pageants at the age of 3. Some work hard to monitor what images their children see in media or via the Internet. Others don't mind if their children mimic Pamela Anderson's style when heading off to school.
That doesn't mean people don't have the right to lobby companies or express disgust at inappropriate marketing. Families on Manhattan's Upper West Side recently convinced Victoria's Secret to opt for more demure window displays in its new retail store -- in part because they were sick of walking their children by mannequins that would look more at home in a strip club.
FAILING TO INSPIRE? But it's hard to blame a retailer for wanting to pick up on a seemingly hot trend -- especially when that retailer already revels in its racy image. Just pick up one of Abercrombie's quarterly catalogues, which often features as many nude models as ones wearing its clothes. For years, that approach paid off big for the once-staid retailer. Now, its flat earnings suggest that Abercrombie has either pushed the envelope too far or simply failed to inspire continued excitement about its brand.
In either case, the market knows how to handle a loser. Those who hate Abercrombie's products and what the retailer has come to represent can take their business elsewhere. And those who have 10-year-olds desperate to don "wink wink" thongs can simply say, "no," and let the girls mope in their practical cotton briefs for a few more years. Brady is an associate editor for BusinessWeek in New York