Would you like a side of suggestiveness with your sweatshirt?

by Kristin on January 27, 2012

in Love, family & community

Believe it or not, I was handed this very bag yesterday, and suddenly found myself carrying it around. Yes, in public!

The whole chain of events was innocent, and took me completely by surprise. My 13-year-old daughter Q, whose birthday is next week, had emailed me a link to some clothes she likes on the Hollister website—a sweatshirt, yoga pants, a-long sleeved striped t-shirt. It was all perfectly tasteful, basic clothing, and it was all on sale. What wasn’t a mom to love?

Rather than ordering online, I decided to stop at the mall so I could see the colors in person (and not have to pay shipping, because yes, I’m cheap like that). When I had decided what to buy, I paid, then reached out to take my purchase—in the bag pictured above. I can imagine that whole scene in slow motion: The cute salesgirl smiling as she reached across the counter with the bag, my hand extending to meet hers then pausing in mid-air as the bag came into focus, suddenly unable to go those extra couple inches to take my purchase off her hands.

Somehow, the bag ended up in my hands and the salesgirl turned away to fold some sweatshirts. I just wanted out of the store, to distance myself from the source of the inappropriate marketing. As soon as I stepped into the bright mall, though, I realized I was fully exposed—the consumer’s version of the Walk of Shame.

Yes, I’m somewhat dramatic, and also out of touch. I hardly ever go to the mall, and I don’t look at magazines or websites that stores like Hollister advertise in. Clearly, I’m not their market—fine, I get it. But my 13-year-old daughter is?? That, I’m not so fine with.

Getting to the heart of what’s wrong

In an attempt to have a sense of humor about it, as well as express my dismay and see what others thought, I posted this on Twitter, along with the photo of the bag:

birthday shopping for my 13-YO means being seen in public carrying this: [insert above photo] #sowrong

The responses immediately came flooding in, including everything from “That’s disgusting,” and “wow. That is just … Wow. Did I say wow?” to “Don’t even get me started on marketing that to young girls” and “bwahahahahaha!” Clearly I’m not the only who feels like this marketing tactic is over the top.

Once that was established, then I moved on to trying to figure out why. What exactly bothers me about this approach to branding? There’s plenty that bothers me as someone who develops brands professionally, but what is it that bothers me as a parent?

It’s not that I think the human body is inherently shameful or obscene.

It’s not that I think an image alone can corrupt my daughter, or that she isn’t capable of thinking critically about the world around her.

It’s that when my daughter buys a perfectly nice, practical, non-suggestive sweatshirt, she doesn’t just get the sweatshirt. She’s also being sold a suggestion about what that sweatshirt stands for—what it says about anyone who likes it and wears it. Suddenly it’s that much harder to just be her—to be this wonderful, witty, outgoing, smart girl full of great ideas who happens to be wearing a sweatshirt. The associations and messages the sweatshirt carries, however subtle they might be, eclipse a small part of who she is.

What’s a parent to do?

One of the funny things about Twitter is how you’re suddenly interacting with people you’d never expect to encounter. Yesterday, it was the manager of that very Hollister store who was suddenly tweeting me: what I appreciate…is that you don’t forbid your daughter from wearing what she wants because of the bag

True. I don’t think that would accomplish much of anything. Instead, I’m planning to strike up a lively conversation about marketing with our daughters, over dinner some time soon. I’m sure Q will be embarrassed. She’ll also probably laugh and say I’m reading WAY too much into this. (I can hear her now: It’s just a bag!)

But it’s a bag that feels wrong, in so many ways—a bag that’s being handed to and carried by thousands of teens who think they’re just buying a piece of clothing. A conversation may not mean the end of Hollister clothing in our lives, but it could be the beginning of a train of thought that’s much bigger—one that long outlasts this teenage fad.

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  • http://www.dexterityunlimited.com/ Dan J

    Love the post, and I love the fact that it sparked such a great conversation.

    I think the marketing industry’s reliance on “sex sells” will be with us for many more decades, if only because it’s so true most of the time. I don’t think I fit their target demographic, though, and that bag shouldn’t be targeting a demographic in their early ‘teens.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    Awesome. I actually ended up discussing the bag with my wife last night. One of the things that came to mind for me is that violence in a movie is easy enough to dismiss and to hopefully avoid duplicating. However, a bag like this sends a far more subtle message that may be hard to weed out.

    What gets me is that the head is gone. It’s just a torso. The body, desire, and sex are what matters. The dude’s hand is all like, “Get down there…” It’s the opposite of intimacy and the sacred union of two lives in marriage. It’s about desire and sex as sport. It may be just a bag, but that bag is part of a far more destructive message in my not so humble opinion.

  • http://amuseorbemused.com JT Adamson

    When they hired me as the model for that shoot, I had no idea it was going to turn out as suggestive as it did. I was just getting ready to button the shirt and tuck it in when they snapped that.
    Our culture’s obsession with over sexualizing EVERYTHING is a terrible side effect of being a people with no anchor. Smart that you will use the experience to have an important, if not awkward, talk with your daughter. Ugh.
    Maybe next time you can ask if they have a free shirt they can give you for the guy on the bag.

  • http://www.livesimplylove.com Merritt | LiveSimplyLove

    I’m totally agreeing with you…even though I don’t have kids (yet). And I love Ed’s comment. It’s not just suggestive, it’s destructive to the hearts and minds of young girls who may assume this is what their guy should look like, how he should act and what intimacy is all about. And maybe guys don’t struggle with being compared to airbrushed perfection, but what’s this telling our young men? Show a little “below the briefs” and you’ll be cool, hot and sought after?

    I’ll say this from personal experience…I went FAR too many years with totally unrealistic expectations in my head about what I should be looking for in a spouse. At age 38 (and many destructive relationships later) I finally asked my dad. He said one word: “loyalty.” What one word is Hollister communicating? Hmm…

    Oh…and I’m pretty disappointed at the response you got from the store manager. Ugh.

  • http://www.left2devices.blogspot.com Matt

    I rarely go to the maill, but when I do it doesn’t escape my attention that many (if not most) of the clothing stores aimed at teens feature some fairly suggestive marketing techniques. This includes Hollister, Banana Republic and A&F (which actually caught some flack about it awhile back).

    To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about it as it relates to age-appropriateness, but more so from the perspective of sexuality in general. It’s a selfish perspective, admittedly, since I’m looking at it from a gay point of view, but I’ve often wondered: Why are photos of hot guys with washboard abs targeted to purportedly straight male shoppers (among others) who probably wouldn’t ever admit to another guy being attractive? Curious.

    Something else I’ve noticed, on the iPhone app Instagram, is that a lot of the teens who use it post self-portraits of themselves, and many of them in various stages of undress. Not sure if it ties into the Hollister bag syndrome, but it could all be cross-related.

    I dunno…. teenagers are growing (physically and mentally), and discovering their sexuality. But… they’re not usually mentally developed enough to make smart decisions in those regards. And so I guess that makes things like the Hollister bags all the more questionable.

    Good luck with your talk!

  • http://ramblingbarba.com Ken Hagerman(The Barba)

    Great stuff. Was this the only option? I can’t help but say I would never buy anything from there if I had to parade around the mall with some guys nether region flapping rhythmically to my walking. I also can’t help but wonder is there a female version of this bag? Are they satisfied objectifying males only or can we be an equal opportunity offender?

    Nice thought about hitting the conversation running with your kids. Seize the moment to instill in them how to use the coping tools you have already given them.

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    Ed says it better than I can. Go Ed!

  • http://npriley.wordpress.com Nancy

    At Hollister during Christmas season, the store had two young shirtless men (much like the one plastered on the bag) serving as greeters. Just walking by, it was horrifying and embarrassing.

  • http://manypinksneakers.blogspot.com Sarah Louise

    When I saw it on Twitter, I thought you were buying some calendar your daughter wanted. Didn’t realize it was a BAG. Ick. I mean, yes, women have been objectified by only showing parts of their bodies for years…a foot, an arm, a torso, so I guess it’s now both sexes…but yeah. this is wrong. I’ll have to scroll back up to see what the manager said because I missed that. I am so glad I was a teenager in the 80s. Our worst merchandizing crime? Wearing those dayglo sweatshirts.

  • http://manypinksneakers.blogspot.com Sarah Louise

    I actually am NOT disappointed by the manager’s tweet. I think it shows maturity that she could reach out to you and not be stabby. But yes, I think next time ask for a free shirt to cover up that man. I mean, it’s January, he’s going to be all cold and stuff.


  • http://www.veronicamonique.com Veronica Monique

    A solid colored bag with maybe the name of the store is just a bag, but what you have there is not just a bag. That is a bonafied sex sells ad on the go. That is a poster hanging in some teenager’s closet or right on their wall. It is stimulating thoughts that have nothing to do with love and everything to do with things that worry a parent. When I was a teenager I would have told my mom that it was just a bag too, and maybe I would have really thought that as well dismissing it as funny because of how she would have reacted. But things like that are thought up by adults, some may even be parents. As a parent, now I understand why things like that raised an eyebrow on my mother, and why I need to have certain conversations with my kids about self-image and self-respect.

  • http://www.everydayethics.com Joan Ball

    So, I have mixed thoughts on this that I will blog about when I have a moment. On the one hand you are right…the abs (which are not only there for young girls btw, the LGBT market in the US is huge and backed by consderable buying power) are provocative. However, perhaps not as much to your desensitized teen then to you. When my very beautuful sister in law (a devout and “pure” christian woman) arrived in the US from her native Uruguay at 18 she had never worn a bra. This was not strange nor was it uncomfortable. She had never been ogled nor made to feel sexualized. It was typical in the culture. Upon arrival here she had to buy a bra almost immediately. She could not walk down the street without being stared at. I wonder if, in our attempts to make bodies (and alcohol, etc) off limits we are not making everything sexual all the time. In fact, I suspect it is part of the reason that “sex sells” works so well in the US. We make the human body taboo which leads to desire.Yes your daughter may say a bag is just a bag…but what if she is right. What if she never did view it as sexual? Who knows, but it will forever be sexual after your conversation. American students are notorious for their binge drinking when they travel abroad and you can tell an American on a topless beach in Europe a mile away because they are the only ones staring/giggling. I’m not advocating ignoring this…we live in the society we live in. I just find it interesting food for thought.

  • http://www.randistrickland.wordpress.com randistrickland

    I’m with Ken Hagerman and am wondering why this seems to raise concerns mostly for girls being sold with sexual ads (understandably), but not so much for the men that are being objectified by this approach to marketing.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Dan J, I don’t know if this is the case with Hollister, but I think it’s common for a store or magazine or whatever to originally think they’re marketing older teens and college kids, but before long it’s the 13-year-olds who are the main market. I guess what I’m saying is that I want to believe Hollister didn’t have 13-year-olds in mind when they formulated their brand (but they clearly are aware of their demographic now, and haven’t made changes). Thanks for jumping into the conversation and introducing the store manager!

    ed, you are SO smart! I can’t believe the whole “headless” aspect didn’t strike me as I thought through all the problems with the photo on the bag. I wonder if you being a guy had anything to do with that? Interesting…

    JT Adamson, I’m so confused—a guy I know on Twitter said it was a photo of *him*! Clearly one of you is lying. :) Anyway, I absolutely agree with this: “Our culture’s obsession with over sexualizing EVERYTHING is a terrible side effect of being a people with no anchor.”

    Merritt, your question—”what’s this telling our young men?—is such an important one. As a mom of three girls (and knowing that it’s females who are sexualized in marketing even more often), I’m realizing it’s difficult for me to step out of my parenting role and look at something like this from all angles. If I had a teenage son, I’m sure my response would have been even more complex!

    Matt, I’m not sure *who* exactly the shirtless guys are being marketed to, but I imagine it’s a bit of everyone—girls, gay guys, and the straight guys who are supposed to want to look like that (and therefore buy the clothes that the model is only partially wearing). Also, I’m positive that this photographic style influences the photos kids take and share of themselves (on Instagram, as you mentioned, and also Flickr and, of course, Facebook). I’m sure the ripple effect is significant.

    Ken, I’m pretty sure it was the only option. (Anyone out there know if there is a female version of the bag? I suppose I could ask my teen…) I’m not sure how I feel about the whole “equal opportunity offender” (although I like how you put that!). Do we want/expect “equality” in this moment from that one store? Or are we looking at the big picture and thinking that these bare male chests might begin to even things out? (Because we all know there’s no shortage of examples of objectifying the female body.)

    HopefulLeigh, go Ed, indeed! :)

  • http://suzysammons.com suzy

    Confession #1: I spent over 25 years at the world’s largest advertising agencies. (I’ve escaped now into marketing more important efforts!). The selling strategy is real and it’s not going away. Intelligent consumerism wins, though. Let them spin on their own self-fulfillment. Spend wisely:)
    Confession #2: As a mom (19, 13, 6) I now am crazy-vocal with our kids about the cultural pull to be all-kinds-of-sexy, and how our entertainment is way too focused on the wrong kind of passion. We boycott Hollister because of this, but then realize we didn’t need their stuff anyway and the boycott idea gives them too much cred.
    Confession #3: Long before Hollister I had a twisted view of my own place as a loved, precious child of God and I was influenced by much more mundane and insipid imagery of the 70′s and 80′s. The idea that our kids don’t see things as mature adults is a mistake. We need to stand in the gap openly, lovingly and early. (Have you seen Twilight?? )
    I am so glad you raised this question, Kristin and love the comments of your community. What gets me standing and shouting is the need to turn this sexual crap into a lesson … to be a champion for our children of both genders. Speaking into the hearts of our young children that God has created them to experience true love in a way more beautiful than they can imagine… that they can be patient and seek it confidently. If more of our world knew the exquisite beauty of that sacred love, there might be no Holliser bags like this!! Thanks and Happy Monday!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Nancy, luckily I missed that! Honestly, it amazes me that marketing stunts like that draw more people into the store than they scare away.

    Sarah Louise, a boy calendar?!? Yikes! You should know me better than that by now! But at least if I was buying a calendar like that I would be walking out of the store with it voluntarily (& it would probably be hidden inside a nondescript bag). There is something really violating about being handed something like that when you didn’t buy it or ask for it, etc. I guess that’s what’s really at the heart of my issue with this.

    Veronica, you perfectly summed up the issue I was just trying to communicate to Sarah Louise: “That is a bonafied sex sells ad on the go.” I really wonder what’s going through the minds of the people who develop these marketing tactics, and if they are spinning some story in their minds to make it all OK.

    Joan, you bring up some really interesting points. It’s tough—I do realize that my daughters are growing up in a different era, and things don’t/won’t shock them as much as they shock me (and, of course, those very things shock my mom even more!). But I’m not OK with just accepting that I’m dealing with a “desensitized teen.” Maybe I’m not being very realistic, but I still feel like that very desensitization is something worth pushing back against. Also, I hear what you’re saying about your sister-in-law’s experience, but unfortunately I’m pretty sure a teen who is growing up in the midst of American culture today has a really good sense—both innately and thanks to conversations with friends—what that marketing approach is all about. I don’t think our conversation will take something that was previously innocent and taint it. I’ll definitely have to report back! (And I’d love to see a blog post by you on this topic.)

    randistrickland, that’s a great point/question. I wonder if it has something to do with our society’s tendency to protect girls more than boys, who are supposed to be “macho” (I know—such an old-school word!) and able to take care of themselves? I know in my case, just in regards to the direction I took with the post, it was very much a protective-mom-of-daughters approach.

    suzy, thanks for tackling this from some different angles, and providing much food for thought! I’m thinking the crazy-vocal approach is the one I’m going to be taking as our kids grow through their teens (we’re already big fans of the family dinner table conversation—we ask lots of “what do you think?” questions). In terms of boycotting Hollister, I’m not sure how I feel. I think if we came to a family agreement about that, it would be great, but if I was enforcing it on my own I’m pretty sure it would backfire. Anyway, there’s much to ponder here! I love how you put this: “We need to stand in the gap openly, lovingly and early.” Just the encouragement I needed.

  • Vicki

    Late to this conversation, but yes, there is a girl version. We only have boy bags at our house because we have a daughter. I think Hollister is using youth to market as much as they are using sex. That is a clearly YOUNG man on the bag. They keep it so dark inside the stores – definitely not mature shopper friendly. It amused me you went INTO the store to see the colors. I asked the very young sales girl if they had the black sweater in a smaller size and she laughed (like, duh), “We only have blue!” They play and sell indie bands (jokes on them-I have all of those CDs already).

    I don’t like the bags either.

  • RJ

    I’m more with Joan Ball than with Kristin on this one. I don’t think anyone can deny that a 13-year-old is at least curious about the opposite sex. The model is not intended to appear as if he’s undressing — he’d have both thumbs in his waistband in that case. I think using that image is simply being used to attract the attention of the target audience. There’s no message saying, “go out and have sex.” This ad also isn’t saying, “Wear our clothes and you’ll get a boyfriend like this.” I think your daughter understands exactly the advertiser’s message: “We know what you’re interested in so we have products you’ll be interested in. Come to our store and see.” I suppose you could argue that advertising should be about the product. but then you’d have to complain about virtually every advertiser.

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