The other day when walking down one of the shopping streets in Stockholm I came to stop in front an American Apparel store. A security guard was placed outside the shop, and all of the shop windows had been broken and were pasted together with duct tape. Later I saw a photo on Instagram of what the shop had looked like earlier in the morning; banners proclaiming boycott with the o’s in boycott replaced by the Venus symbol; what I believe were photos from the company’s online shop figuring women modeling unisex shirts with sexism written over the photos; as well as signs on the door to the store with text that I could not make out but that I’m guessing were about reasons of why to boycott.
The background to the broken windows started about a week ago when Swedish newspapers reported that American Apparel had been reported to reklamombudsmannen due to images on American Apparel’s webpage where women were posing in several photos, half naked, in what could be interpreted as sexual positions. This in turn stirred up a heated national media debate. One company, byPM, answered by having one their shirts modeled by a man mimicking one of the images from American Apparel, posing on all fours without any underpants and hair covering the face.
A bit ironic is that when American Apparel (founded in 1989) opened their first retail store ten years ago they were credited for their ethical approach. They are one of few American companies labeling their clothes “made in the USA”, contributing to creating jobs at home instead of outsourcing production to low-wage countries. Bringing jobs back home has been a big national political issue in the US as a concequence of the ongoing recession. One of the company’s trademarks has been sweatshop free production. Although criticized from the start for highly sexual ad campaigns, they have also been celebrated for using employees and friends as models showing of bodies that deviate from super skinny model ideals.
This example illustrates that there are several moral and ethical issues at stake here. There is objection against sexism towards women, debates around sound body ideals and issues of fair labor conditions. This can be placed in a long ongoing public and academic discourse dealing with ethical consumerism, regarding the individual consumer as a citizen consumer, expected to take a stand and “vote” by using one’s consumer power. Ultimately, this comes down to issues of what actors in society that are responsible for what. What can be expected from governments, the media, companies’, NGO’s, the academia and individuals? As always, when property is damaged, people speak up, talking in terms of “violence is never acceptable”. To me, this is to shift focus from the real issue. I would rather have seen a media debate that actually adressed the message of the boycott. Or, taking action, like byPM, who in my mind managed to ridicule American Apparel in a quite amusing way and thereby making visible the differences between how women’s and men’s bodies are viewed.
Reklamombudsmanne (RO) is a self-regulation organization founded by the industry. RO work for ethical marketing communication by receiving complaints about advertising and assessing if advertising is following the Consolidated ICC Code. RO also provide information, guidance and training in the field of ethical marketing (quote from www.reklamombudsmannen.org, retrived 20130521)