When Companies Fire Customers: Abercrombie & ‘Jersey Shore’


NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Companies seeking exposure for their brands are known to shell out millions to get their products placed in movies and TV shows, but now one company is willing to pay to get its products removed from a TV show instead.

The company: Abercrombie & Fitch (Stock Quote: ANF). The show: MTV’s Jersey Shore. The company put out a cheeky press release Tuesday announcing that it had offered compensation to Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, one of the show’s stars, to get him to stop wearing the company’s products on the show.

“We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image,” a company spokesperson said in the release. “We understand that the show is for entertainment purposes, but believe this association is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.”

The press release seems to be at least in part a publicity ploy, and one that has garnered quite a bit of media attention. Still, Abercrombie wouldn’t be the first company to publicly wish for a negative brand association to disappear, and it’s not even the first time a company has fretted about appearing on Jersey Shore.

According to a report in the New York Observer last year, luxury handbag designers were furnishing the show’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi with their competitor’s products. The idea, evidently, was to keep their own bags out of the hands of the boozy reality star, and tarnish their competitors’ brands.

Abe Sauer, who writes for branding blog BrandChannel, says it shouldn’t come as a surprise that handbag designers and clothing retailers alike are loath to have their products featured on the show.

“Jersey Shore has a huge viewership, but I’d be willing to bet that 90% of viewers find the characters revolting,” says Sauer. “Brand association-wise it’s a poison, so I’m not surprised that Abercrombie & Fitch is willing to pay to get their products off the show.”

Whether the company will be successful in dissociating its brand from that of the reality show is another question entirely. Companies who made similar stabs at product un-placement have a mixed track record of success.

Take Cristal, a luxury brand of champagne produced by Champagne Louis Roederer. In an interview with The Economist in 2006, the company’s president, Frédéric Rouzaud, expressed ambivalence about the fact that the champagne had become popular with rappers.

“What can we do?” Rouzaud said of the brand’s association with rap culture. “We can't forbid people from buying it.”

While the company never went so far as to ask rappers not to drink Cristal, its apparent distaste for this unintended product placement was clear. In response, rapper Jay-Z accused the company of racism and banished the drink from his clubs, giving Rouzaud the brand disassociation he desired at the cost of a public relations headache. 

Other companies have recognized the futility of trying to keep their brands pure as well. In the early days of the Afghanistan War, Toyota watched with consternation as its pickup trucks appeared in news broadcasts as the vehicle of choice for Taliban fighters. But the company recognized that there was little it could do about the situation – it does not export cars to Afghanistan – and so tried its best to put a positive spin on things.

“'It is not our proudest product placement,” a Toyota spokesman told the New York Times. “But it shows that the Taliban are looking for the same qualities as any truck buyer: durability and reliability.”

Luxury brands in particular have had to balance the sales bump they get from mainstream adoption with the negative impact it can have on their status as a luxury brand. Sauer points to so-called “Chav” culture in England – troublemaking, uneducated urban youths – who have appropriated luxury brands like Burberry and Louis Vuitton, damaging the brands’ luxury association in that country.

“A well-heeled society doesn’t like to see the things it values used by a society it might not let in the door,” Sauer says. “That’s a concern for any luxury brand.”

Burberry and Cristal both had to walk fine lines in dealing with unfavorable brand association: Cristal wound up offending many Americans by making its disdain for rap culture public, while Burberry had to weigh the purity of its brand against the prospect of alienating much of its customer base in England.

By contrast, having a little fun at The Situation’s expense isn’t going to cause much controversy for Abercrombie, given the disdain that most Americans seem to have for the Jersey Shore cast. And regardless of whether The Situation agrees to start shopping somewhere else, the company’s public reaction goes a long way toward dissociating its “aspirational” brand from the reality show that has the potential to drag it down into the mud.

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