FORTUNE -- A video depicting a hipster giving homeless people clothes from Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) reached critical viral mass this week. It was a protest against Abercrombie's practice of only hiring "good-looking" people for its stores, not stocking women's clothes in large sizes, and marketing itself only to "cool kids."
"Abercrombie & Fitch is a terrible company," says filmmaker Greg Karber. Which is true. Or at least, the remarks made by CEO Mike Jeffries in an infamous 2006 interview with Salon were terrible and perfectly represented Abercrombie's brand. "In every school," he said back then, "there are the cool kids and then there are the not-so-cool kids. We go after the cool kids. A lot of people don't belong, and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely." The issue sprang up again recently when Business Insider reported on the company's refusal to sell clothes in larger sizes.
"Today," Karber says in the video, "we're going to change their brand." He then depicts himself rifling through bins full of clothes in second-hand shops looking for the Abercrombie label (or the name of the company, which is often garishly emblazoned across Abercrombie's "exclusionary" hoodies and t-shirts), and then passes his finds out to homeless people in Los Angeles's Skid Row neighborhood.
The video has racked up 4.3 million views in just three days. The backlash was immediate, with people complaining that Karber, in trying to make a righteous point, was basically using homeless people as props, or as the collective butt of a joke. The video "sends a terrible message and uses people experiencing homelessness as pawns," wrote Sarah Mirk of Bitch Magazine.
It's not necessarily so easy, though. After all, Karber gets to make his point, Abercrombie (which reportedly destroys its damaged goods rather than giving them away) gets humiliated, and homeless people get clothes. These are all mitigating factors. In the end, though, Karber did use homeless people as props, and the complaints about his tactics are absolutely valid.
There is a solution, however: Karber, who lives in L.A.'s hipster enclave of Silver Lake, should give the clothes instead to hipsters, who could wear them ironically. Jeffries and his marketing weasels would be just as horrified, and the only people being used as props would be those who volunteered for it. At some point, perhaps Jeffries would be driving along Santa Monica Boulevard, or maybe Union Avenue in Brooklyn, only to look up and see some guy riding a fixie, with a patchwork of experimental facial hair, a pair of gigantic, horn-rimmed glasses clamped to his head, wearing an Abercrombie t-shirt over his skinny jeans. Then, Jeffries would know that all had been lost.
Karber of course is defending himself. It was "certainly not my intent to exploit the homeless or to make a punchline out of them," he told KCRW, a public radio station in L.A. But of course that was his intent. He just didn't really think it through. He says he's glad for the backlash because it will "start a dialog" about both homelessness and Abercrombie's corporate jerkiness.
KCRW interviewed Ken Wilbur, a marketing professor at Duke University, to discuss the potential damage to Abercrombie. One of the "benefits" that Abercrombie's brand promises, Wilbur said, is that the clothes "can help make them cool by promising this air of exclusivity." But if videos like this "diminish the brand's value in the eyes of those cool kids' peers, then [Abercrombie is] facing real potential harm" to its brand.
So, the "brand" is for the cool kids, but if the company says it's for the cool kids and is ridiculed as a result, then it's no longer cool. Welcome to marketing in the 21st century, when marketing to one part of our increasingly atomized society risks alienating another part that has access to powerful social-media tools.
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