December 01, 2003,
In matters of foreign policy, Teddy Roosevelt advised, one should speak softly and carry a big stick. Last month tens of thousands of Americans applied that advice to a vexing domestic matter. Their "big stick" was the threat of a nationwide boycott of one of Roosevelt's favorite stores, Abercrombie and Fitch.
The threat worked. Four days before the official start of the Christmas shopping season Abercrombie, known for overpriced clothes and underdressed models ordered its 651 stores to stop selling "The Christmas Field Guide," the latest edition of the company's pornographic quarterly magazine. It's evidently the start of a permanent ban on selling the quarterly in stores, and it's evidence that when enough people get mad and take action even the most libertine companies will sometimes back down.
Abercrombie's quarterly has long angered parents and others concerned about cultural decay. The 2003 Christmas issue features dozens of naked young men and women in various sexual poses, including group sex. The pictures are accompanied by a column from a "sexpert" who, among other lewd advice, suggests readers engage in oral sex in movie theaters "so long as you do not disturb those around you."
Earlier editions featured pictures of Santa in sadomasochistic poses with his elves, drinking tips, advice on seducing everyone from teachers to nuns, and a recommendation that students "negotiate a special group rate at a local motel, which your entire quad can take advantage of." A&F recently outraged parents by marketing, to seven-year-old girls, thong-style panties featuring slogans like "Eye Candy" and "Wink Wink."
I visited an A&F store at the Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, Maryland last Wednesday. I was planning to write a story about the quarterly, and wanted to see a copy for myself. But when I got to the counter, the sales associate told me they were no longer selling the Christmas issue. This was confirmed by store manager Matt Willard, who said all A&F stores were ordered to stop selling the quarterly last Tuesday. Store managers were given no explanation for the decision, he said.
I called Abercrombie's national headquarters in New Albany, Ohio to confirm this. CEO Mike Jeffries and his staff were not available, but an employee who gave his name as "Brennan" said the company had been, over the last two weeks, received 300 calls per hour from people announcing they were boycotting A&F stores until the clothier stopped selling the quarterly. The decision to yank the Christmas issue from stores was made at the beginning of Thanksgiving week, he added.
Who was behind the boycotts?
"Ever hear of Dr. Dobson?" Brennan asked.
James Dobson of Focus on the Family recently spent a radio program and an appearance on MSNBC's Scarborough Country urging listeners to boycott Abercrombie until it stopped publishing the quarterly.
Dobson was joined in his efforts by former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, Chuck Colson, the American Decency Association (ADA), the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, and others.
Pressure on A&F may also have come from another source: Corporations that own other stores. Bill Johnson, president of the American Decency Association, says that his group had come up with a unique new strategy for getting a Grand Rapids, Michigan A&F to not only stop selling its raunchy quarterly, but also to get rid of the huge photographs of naked models that decorate the walls of every A&F store.
Discussions with Abercrombie and the manager of the Rivertown Crossings Mall in Grand Rapids had gone nowhere. So Johnson sent a letter to the managers of all 120 mall stores expressing concerns about what children visiting the mall were being exposed to. He enclosed several photos from A&F's quarterly. Police yourselves, he warned, or we'll urge people to boycott the entire mall right at the start of the Christmas shopping season.
Johnson immediately heard from two stores, including the manager of one of the mall's largest department stores. In the last two weeks there have been, Johnson says, "significant discussions" between the corporation that owns the department store and Abercrombie, leading the ADA to agree to agree to delay the boycott.
The mainstreaming of porn is nothing new. What outrages many parents is that Abercrombie is deliberately aiming its porn and damaging lifestyle advice, not at dirty old men, but at kids.
The best news is the lasting Christmas gift Abercrombie is giving to America. When I tried to order a "Field Guide" by telephone, an A&F employee told me the company's decision to keep the quarterly out of stores is permanent. She, too, blamed the boycotts. The only people who will have access to the quarterly in future, she added, are those who already have a subscription. It's a huge step forward.
A&F's CEO Mike Jeffries has for years sneered at those who complained about his quarterly's filth. Asking him softly to clean up his act didn't work, but big stick evidently did.
Anne Morse is a freelance writer in Virginia.