BUSINESS
06/11/2013 04:44 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

Abercrombie Anti-Bullying Campaign Met With Surprise, Criticism From Protesters

Abercrombie & Fitch is making efforts to respond to critics’ claims that the brand excludes certain shoppers by sponsoring an anti-bullying campaign. But some of the retailer’s detractors are dismissing the move as “not enough” and “not sincere.”

The company announced on Tuesday that it would offer a college scholarship to promising high school students who persevere academically in the face of bullying. Starting next year, the scholarships will be administered through the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation and will also go to students who lead anti-bullying efforts.

The move comes weeks after comments Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries made to Salon in 2006 admitting the brand aimed to exclude "uncool" teens resurfaced, sparking a wave of real-life and social media protests. Outraged shoppers also complained that Abercrombie dictated a certain standard of beauty by not offering larger sizes in its stores.

The recent controversy presented the company with an "opportunity" to "take a more proactive stand in the fight against bullying," an Abercrombie spokesperson wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.

But some of the apparel brand's critics, like 18-year-old Benjamin O’Keefe, said the anti-bullying campaign shows the company is “becoming the epitome of hypocrisy."

“It doesn’t make sense that a company that is still bullying itself is now working on an anti-bullying campaign,” O’Keefe told HuffPost.

An advocate and actor, he was the one to start a Change.org petition against Abercrombie after he spotted Jefferies 2006 comments on the business news website Business Insider.

O'Keefe said it will take more than just an anti-bullying campaign to change his mind about the company; he’d like to see a public commitment from Abercrombie to stock larger sizes for women as well as to include plus-sized models in its advertising as some of its competitors do.

“They’re still continuing to ignore what tens of thousands of people have mandated from them,” said O’Keefe, whose petition demanding Abercrombie "make clothes for teens of all sizes" garnered more than 75,000 signatures. “It’s not enough, it’s not sincere, it’s just a way to try to avoid the bigger issue.”

Abercrombie has sold sizes for larger women in the past, according to a company spokesperson, but they didn’t make up a big enough percentage of sales to justify maintaining inventory. Still, there’s a possibility that policy may change if responses to a recent company study indicate there’s customer demand for larger sizes.

Jefferies explained the policy in a different way to Salon back in 2006: “We go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Abercrombie ultimately apologized for Jeffries’s statements, and the CEO struck a more inclusive tone in the press release announcing the anti-bullying campaign.

“We've listened to the conversations and heard the message and, as a company, look forward to increasing our commitment to anti-bullying efforts,” Jeffries said in the statement. “We are fully committed to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion -- one in which no young person should ever feel intimidated, especially at school, whether for the clothes they wear, or because someone perceives them as different.”

Like O'Keefe, Heather Arnet, a longtime critic who in the mid-2000s launched a boycott of the company, said Abercrombie could do more to cut down on teen bullying by promoting a more inclusive definition of beauty in its ads and clothes. Still, she acknowledged in an email to HuffPost that the anti-bullying initiative is "a positive step."

"A company like Abercrombie can say whatever they want in a meeting with teens or in a press release, but their real intentions are disclosed by their everyday actions," she wrote. "One needs to only look at companies like Dove and their real beauty campaign; or Cheerios new ad showcasing an interracial family to see what a real commitment to diversity looks like and how it can really be reflected in a marketing budget and through brand stewardship."

For some teen activists, Abercrombie’s anti-bullying campaign shows promise, even if it follows anti-bullying initiatives from some of its competitors. Cali Linstrom, a Chicago-area 17-year-old who was a vocal opponent of Abercrombie in recent months, will lead anti-bullying conferences in high schools this fall as part of the company’s initiative.

Linstrom told HuffPost she proposed the idea of an anti-bullying symposium to Abercrombie executives in a meeting that followed a protest she helped lead outside a Chicago store. “I was surprised at how receptive and how willing they were to change things,” she said.

Though she said it would be great if Abercrombie started offering larger sizes, extracting that specific concession was never her main objective. “My goal was to at least empower teenagers and make teenagers feel like they have a voice,” Linstrom said.

Abercrombie’s sort-of change of heart hasn’t made her an avid shopper there, though.

“It’s not really my style,” she said.

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