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Why A&F's Silly 'Jersey Shore' Stunt Hurts Us All

Abercrombie and Fitch, the same bunch of fashion-forward folks who brought the world thongs for 10-year olds and padded bikini tops for the 7-year-old crowd, have now tried out a new promotional tactic.

Here’s the story: A&F sent out a press release recently revealing that they had offered money to Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino of "Jersey Shore" reality show fame to stop wearing the company's clothes. 

The release is worth quoting since this is presumably an honest statement being issued by an established (since 1892), publicly-traded company:

"We are deeply concerned that Mr. Sorrentino's association with our brand could cause significant damage to our image. 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.

We have therefore offered a substantial payment to Michael 'The Situation' Sorrentino and the producers of MTV's "The Jersey Shore" to have the character wear an alternate brand. We have also extended this offer to other members of the cast, and are urgently waiting a response."

Folks, the issue here this "official" corporate statement was probably just a stunt -- after all, if the clothing company was truly concerned about members of "The Jersey Shore" cast wearing their clothes, why didn’t A&F keep these “negotiations” back channel?

MTV, the network behind "Jersey Shore," tellingly seems to believe the company's offer is also a stunt. 

And Sorrentino predictably pushed back, thus raising the media coverage.

A&F has always attracted controversy, but this time it is different because it looks like the company was lying or, at the very least, twisting the truth in an official press release.

Fact is, there should never, ever be a press release from an established company or person that lies or is even tongue-in-cheek. That’s the big problem here. A&F is saying something that they probably don’t mean in order to get momentary attention.

Some people have speculated, perhaps rightly, that the company pulled this stunt now to distract attention from A&F’s poor quarterly earnings report. Here's how The New York Times characterized the company's latest numbers:

Abercrombie & Fitch, the retailer, was down more than 8 percent and led the list of leading decliners among the 10 most actively traded shares during most of the session. In reporting its results, Mike Jeffries, the chief executive, said the company faced greater uncertainty this year.

Others have claimed that the challenge to "The Situation" was a brilliant move by A&F to assure its global audience (aka "target market" that the boorish "Jersey Shore" antics of the reality show's cast don’t represent its high-end, WASP-y brand. 

But the key here is no matter what A&F’s ultimate objective or reasons, the company crossed the line.

I know that the advertising and promotion landscape is tougher to crack than ever, but tactics like this can only hurt a brand--no matter how edgy or controversial that brand already is.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney recently got a lot of flack for his statement that "corporations are people, too." No matter what you might think of Romney, it was a brave statement that attempted to counter the cynical assumption that corporations are only soulless entities that exist only to fleece the rest of us.

Corporations really are people. And like people they can behave either very well or very badly. And also like people they will be judged by their behavior.

The problem with A&F’s stunt is that it is a cynical and manipulative attack on people’s trust. It is an example of behavior that companies should not follow.

People like to excuse bad behavior by saying things like, “Well, it’s only human.” But, good behavior is also "only human" and rather than follow the offenders down the endless spiral to the gutter, corporations need to remember that just like people they will be held accountable when they take their customers’ goodwill for granted. True corporate branding powerhouses like Procter & Gamble never forget this rule. They build trust and brands over the long haul.

Let’s face it, so-called "guerrilla marketing" is essentially just a new word for publicity stunt, but it goes really bad when lying and deception become part of the game.

What about the lawsuit against Urban Outfitters last week by the parents of an underage model claiming that the company used inappropriate images of her? Is that a publicity stunt, too? Maybe it was intended to promote just how edgy Urban Outfitters is? We may never know.

There is one thing that A&F did manage to get right. But so what? Sorrentino, his crew, the show itself and the effect on the A&F brand really does seem to go against the company's more preppy Target Market at home and it undercuts their global aspirations. But, again, though they might have gotten this important element of brand identification right, the way they went about making their point totally undercut any gains. Could the 8% drop in A&F’s stock price last week have been one immediate consequence of this guerilla marketing stunt?

The bottom line is this: corporations need to think twice before engaging in unseemly guerilla marketing behavior of this kind. Not only will the tactic come back to bite them, as it did with A&F, but in the end it will hurt us all.

And, remember, it's always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion and is author of the book "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."

John Tantillo is a marketing and branding expert who markets his own services as The Marketing Doctor. He writes frequently for Fox News Opinion and is author of "People Buy Brands, Not Companies."