More Naughty Nudes at Abercrombie

Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) is no stranger to controversy, and once again, nearly nude photos are at the crux of its latest brouhaha.

According to the Associated Press, police confiscated some racy pictures from an Abercrombie & Fitch store in Virginia Beach, Va., and slammed the manager of the store with a misdemeanor obscenity charge. Unfortunately for him, police charged him because there's no way to pursue a corporate entity in this type of situation. He could be fined $2,000 and spend up to a year in jail if convicted.

The AP said the store manager declined to comment, since he was waiting for guidance from Abercrombie's corporate offices. (Talk about a bad day at work.)

Anyone who's familiar with Abercrombie knows that for a company that peddles clothes, its marketing often seems to include a ridiculous lack thereof. (That's why this prank was so darn entertaining.)

Abercrombie recently launched Gilly Hicks, which supposedly sells lingerie. The Gilly Hicks website isn't for the faint of heart, and will most likely get you in hot water if you look at it at work. There's more skin than merchandise featured in the video it offers, and the dizzying array of naked body parts tends to distract from the occasional flash of actual undergarments.

Clothing-optional advertising is nothing new for Abercrombie. You might remember the scandalous catalogs that it finally pulled in 2003, for example. (Apparently, splashing the words "Group Sex" across the cover finally went too far. At the time, it didn't help the company boost same-store sales, either.)

I'm no stranger to shock tactics; I'm an Urban Outfitters shareholder, and that company has gotten into hot water for controversial merchandise (and probably benefited from the free advertising). However, I've always been annoyed that for all its spicy advertising, there's nothing very edgy at all about Abercrombie's preppy clothing. I guess marketing clothes by showcasing their absence is one way to take on rivals like American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO  ) .

With parents holding the cash or credit cards that fund most of its young customers' transactions, Abercrombie's provocative campaigns have always been a calculated risk. But until kids get fed up with such ads -- which they might, since these tactics could be perceived as a lazy way to get attention and build a brand -- Abercrombie's liable to keep pushing the envelope. It may fan some consumers' ire, but it could also keep growing the company's business. That said, perhaps we should pity the store-level managers who get left in the line of fire.


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