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Tuesday April 23, 2002

Abercrombie: Innocent Marketing Gaffe or Company-wide Neglect ?

Chan Cho

A now controversial line of T-shirts by Abercrombie & Fitch featuring racist caricatures of Asians set off a firestorm of protests and outraged emails last week.

The company promptly issued an apology and recalled the T-shirts from its 311 locations nationwide. Now the question is if the Ohio-based clothier can repair its image in the Asian community-and does it want to?

One of the shirts bore the logo, "Wong Brothers Laundry Service - Two Wongs Can Make It White." Another shirt features a smiling Buddha figure with the slogan "Abercrombie and Fitch Buddha Bash - Get Your Buddha on the Floor." Another reads "Wok-N-Bowl - Let the Good Times Roll - Chinese Food & Bowling."

Dr. Andrew Erlich, CEO and founder of Erlich Transcultural Consultants in Woodland Hill, Calif., mapped out one of the paths the company could take to repair the damage: "They need to examine and remedy how this decision was made," he said. "If you got a group of American Born Chinese in a room, they would have told you immediately this was unacceptable. It's evident to me that nobody did research."

The fact that the designs and logos reached store shelves speaks to lack of cultural awareness throughout the company, and possibly indicates a dearth of minority executives, said Erlich, who is a cross cultural psychologist. "If they had been connected, this would never have happened. They were trying to be hip, but it just came off as racist."

Abercrombie spokesperson Hampton Carney of the New York City-based public relations firm Paul Wilmot, was not available for comment Friday or Monday. Representatives of the company declined to comment as well.

This flies in the face of Erlich's advice for the company. "They have to be front and center and answer all questions," he said. "They need to show that they are sensitive to this community, and make clear how and why this won't happen again."

Part of achieving that might entail considering the list of demands put forth at the protest last Thursday in front of the Abercrombie store in downtown San Francisco. The list of demands include increased philanthropy to the Asian community, the creation of an Asian Pacific American consultant team to ensure cultural sensitivity, and a public apology published in four major newspapers.

According to Michael Chang, vice chairman of Stanford's Asian American Students' Association and one of the driving forces of the protest, "These are simply measures that would negate the ignorant ideas that the company has spread."

Erlich also said that the demands were reasonable. "It would be a display of good corporate citizenship and show that they really are trying to prevent this type of prejudice in the future," he said.

"It was a major misstep because they never really marketed to the Asian community, and the first thing they do is this," Chang said. "I don't think they intentionally tried to offend anyone - but it doesn't have to be intended to be hurtful. There's something latent in their sense of humor that still needs to be educated."

Notably, this is not the first time the company has found itself the target of protesters. Last year, women's organizations and conservative politicians expressed outrage with the company ads featuring young, barely clad models in sexually suggestive poses.

"When you come from a position of having to do repair work, it's always very difficult," Erlich said. "The automatic assumption is that it's just an afterthought."

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