On the Internet, words never die. Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO Mike Jeffries learned that the hard way in recent weeks as the company's brand has been battered online and on television for comments he made seven years ago.
A Business Insider story from May 3, which had no apparent news peg, noted that Abercrombie & Fitch does not sell pants for women larger than a size 10. The story included quotes from a retail analyst who said the company only wants "thin and beautiful people" shopping in its store and pointed readers to remarks made by Jeffries in a Salon article from 2006. In it, he reportedly said A&F markets to "the cool kids" ("A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes]. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely") and implied that thin young people are his target market ("those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny").
In response, A&F and its CEO's remarks have been pilloried across the Internet. Ellen DeGeneres criticized the company on her show earlier this week. A plus-sized blogger had photos taken of herself that were reflective of Abercrombie's suggestive ads, and they've gone viral. A producer made a video of himself giving Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to a homeless man that has been viewed 7 million times and inspired its own hashtag, #Fitchthehomeless. The company's Facebook page has been flooded with criticism and snarky comments.
And now, the company is finally responding to its critics. On May 15, Jeffries wrote on the company's Facebook page that while he believed the quote had been taken out of context, "I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense." Then on Tuesday evening, A&F released a statement saying it had met with the president & CEO of the National Eating Disorder Association and members of America the Beautiful Teen Empowerment Series. "We look forward to continuing this dialogue and taking concrete steps to demonstrate our commitment to anti-bullying in addition to our ongoing support of diversity and inclusion," the statement read. "We want to reiterate that we sincerely regret and apologize for any offense caused by comments we have made in the past which are contrary to these values."
What's surprising about all this isn't that Abercrombie & Fitch wants thin, cool teens wearing its clothes. The brand is arguably more blatantly in-your-face about sex and body image than any other brand marketed to teenagers in the history of retail. Its drawn criticism or snark for everything from its racy catalogs to its extremely detailed fashion standards for its employees. And while Jeffries may have been the only one who actually admitted it—in language that was absolutely insensitive and inappropriate for a CEO—A&F is far from the only fashion brand to limit sizes.
What is surprising is that the company took 12 days (an eternity in the world of social media) to publicly respond to the viral backlash and nearly three weeks to meet with critics. The best thing for Jeffries to do would have been to speak up the day the story was posted, apologizing immediately for any offense the comments may have caused. It's unlikely this would have stopped the criticism, but it could have slowed the story down enough to allow the company to announce some corrective steps before things got out of hand.
The fact that the comments were made seven years ago or that they may have been taken out of context will not make a bona fide Internet sensation go away. If anything, it lessens the impact any corrective actions might have, as they become transparent responses to a PR problem rather than an immediately sincere effort to respond to customers and critics.
And once a brand becomes a viral sensation, it takes on a life of its own. On Wednesday, the company was featured on BuzzFeed in a story that raises concerning questions about the company's governance. It reported that Jeffries' long-time partner, Matthew Smith, has an involved role at the company, quoting anonymous sources who say he polices "Workstation Standards," sits in on company meetings, and receives access to non-public reports. (An Abercrombie & Fitch spokesperson would only say that Matthew Smith is not an associate or a paid consultant.)
The reporter, who covers the specialty retail industry, may very well have written the story even if there hadn't been controversy surrounding the brand. But I doubt I'm going out on a limb to guess that bad press, poorly handled, begets more bad press.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.