The preppy teen retailer said Tuesday it would pay a "substantial payment" to Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino or any cast member who stops wearing its clothing on the popular MTV reality show because the series is "contrary to the aspirational nature of the brand."
"We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image," the retailer said in a press release.
It may seem strange that a brand that employs half-naked models to stand outside its flagship stores and courted controversy with racy catalogs has come out with such an aggressive campaign against the hard partying cast of "Jersey Shore." But the audacious approach is getting the teen retailer tons of publicity during the crucial back-to-school season, the second biggest shopping period of the year. The CEO says it's having fun with the ploy, and marketing experts say the company may wind up laughing all the way to the bank.
"It gets their name further out into the marketplace with one of the hottest brands on TV right now at the peak of the back-to-school season," said Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi. "It's free marketing. Because the approach is so ridiculous, everybody's talking about it."
Brands usually embrace celebrities or performers who adopt their products in an unsolicited, organic way because of all the attention it can drum up. But sometimes they can have an uneasy relationship.
When hip hop stars unofficially adopted luxury champagne Cristal as their drink of choice several years ago, for example, the relationship seemed cozy at first. But after a company executive made derogatory comments about hip hop culture, high profile rappers like Jay-Z boycotted it.
Still, unexpected adaptation can be beneficial. When an urban audience adopted ultra-preppy Tommy Hilfiger clothes, the brand ended up expanding massively. And now Tommy Hilfiger's son even is a rapper.
The cast of "Jersey Shore" don't exactly consist of the kind of role models most brands covet. Now filming its fifth season, the show has won millions of viewers who tune in to watch a group of hard-partying, foul-mouthed 20- and 30-somethings hanging out, hooking up and behaving raucously. Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino is one of the most popular, and outrageous, cast members, boasting of a "gym-tan-laundry" routine and lifting his shirt to show off his abs at every opportunity.
CEO Mike Jeffries said the offer to pay cast members came about when someone alerted him Sorrentino was wearing Abercrombie & Fitch on the show. In an Aug. 11 episode, Sorrentino wears neon green AF-label sweat pants.
Abercrombie has not disclosed the offering price. But Jeffries struck a light tone about the offer.
"We are having a lot of fun with it," he said in a conference call with analysts Wednesday.
MTV called the move a "clever PR stunt" by Abercrombie. "We'd love to work with them on other ways they can leverage `Jersey Shore' to reach the largest youth audience on television," the network said Wednesday in a statement.
Analysts say while Abercrombie's provocative move suggests a publicity ploy, the teen retailer does have an image to protect. Laura Ries, president of the Atlanta marketing consultancy Ries & Ries said the image is "classic, sexy, preppy teenagers."
"Jersey Shore' shows 20-something guys and girls getting drunk every night and going out to party," she says, "so it clearly does not go with the image they have worked for over a decade to show to the world."
The news came as Abercrombie, based in New Albany, Ohio, reported strong second-quarter results, fueled by international growth. Abercrombie lost market share during the recession to cheaper competitors, but has rebounded since and is focused on growing internationally. In fact, preserving its image overseas might be part of the impetus behind the move, said Nomura analyst Paul Lejuez
"It shows their European customer, especially, he is not what the brand represents," he said. "They have a strong, aggressive European growth strategy. You don't want Europeans thinking that's what the brand is all about."
Ries, the Atlanta branding expert, said the title of Abercrombie's description of the offer as "a `Win-Win' situation" in the press release is appropriate.
"Abercrombie and `The Situation' are both getting enormous PR and really everyone is in on the joke," she said.
Sorrentino did not return requests for comment and there was no word at press time whether anyone in the cast accepted the offer.