“American Able” photography project challenges the so called diversified ad campaign machine of American Apparel

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American Apparel ads are the archetype of the modern day urban hipster. They are provocative photographs of young models and epitomize youth and sexuality. As their website says, “…our authentic imagery and socially relevant messaging have earned us a fiercely loyal following….ever unpredictable, our ads feature the familiar faces and backsides of fans, friends and employees from around the world” and they go on to praise themselves by saying, “Our iconic ads reflect the diversity, individuality and independent spirit this company was founded on, with little regard for mainstream advertising trends.”

Although the ads draw my attention, as they are usually placed in newspaper deserts that are void of life, i.e. the classifieds, I disregard them before I have a chance to read the bold type. This is because the images are not compelling but rather reminiscent of amateur snap shot style blog photographs that are common throughout the web. Society has become savvy in their ability to read images and some no longer find relevance interpreting the same old bells and whistles of the usual gimmicks in advertising.

Also, predictability from appropriation is apparent throughout their entire ad campaign, especially since the 80’s and 90’s are such a strong influence in the American Apparel aesthetic. Recently, however, American Apparel was successful in grabbing my attention when I came across what I thought was one of their ads entitled, “Meet Jes”, in the Disability Scoop article “Can Disability Be Sexy?” by, Michelle Diament.

“Meet Jes” is a photograph of a young, hip chick with tattoos and shades striking an iconic American Apparel pose while looking ever so cool, braless, in a wife beater tank top paired with men’s blue underwear. The photograph is minimalistic and the subject is placed against an early 80’s style striped curtain back drop. The unexpected element in the American Apparel ad is the unique features of the model, Jes Sachse. Sachse has a rare genetic condition known as Freeman-Sheldon syndrome. As I investigate further, I learn that my eyes have fooled me. It is not the American Apparel logo in bold typography placed in the bottom right corner, but rather a logo called “American Able” concealed to look like the American Apparel logo.

The title “Meet Jes” accompanies the image in the usual American Apparel style of including captions. Before I realized the intentions of the photograph and in the context of thinking it was an American Apparel ad, I found the break from tradition of using the usual waif like model rocking spandex welcoming and refreshing. In a market saturated with typical imagery, I responded to something new. For a moment, I was actually excited about American Apparel advertising.

To delve deeper, American apparel ads are indeed successful ad campaigns. However, they are highly reminiscent of the praised United Colors of Benetton ad campaigns of the 80’s and 90’s. The Benetton ad campaign is famous for combining high style trends with the trends of contemporary social issues. In doing so, the social statements Benetton made created tension and controversy that contributed to the campaigns world-wide recognition. Because of this, it is easy to see reflections of Benetton ads referenced throughout fashion industry photography. American Apparel has attempted to do so, while stopping short to create provocative imagery outside of any subject other than sex appeal.

Also, unlike Benetton ads, their ad work is far from cutting edge in representing a diversified culture. So quick to give themselves a pat on the back for celebrating diversity, originality and unpredictability, they forget that being unpredictable means not being predictable. Sure, the American Apparel company marches to the beat of its own drum, but the drum beat is really just a sample from drummers of the past. It is as if their concept of diversity was taken straight from the pages of the manuscript for the 80’s cult classic movie the Breakfast Club.

The extent of diversified originality in American Apparel ads read like the letter written to Principal Vernon, as narrated by Judd Nelson’s rebel character in the films iconic ending, “Dear Mr. Vernon….What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us…In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions…but what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal….does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.”

In stark contrast to American Apparel, “American Able” is a social commentary photography project bent on calling out those in the mass media that are responsible for making superficial claims of social responsibility. The project’s creator is Sachse’s friend, photographer Holly Norris. Norris is poignant in her message as she challenges the notions regarding diversity, originality and inclusion while drawing attention to the misconceptions of each. She has a degree in women, gender and environmental studies. She has no formal training in photography and is completely self- taught. This fact alone deserves praise. As stated on her website, Norris “intends to reveal the ways in which women with disabilities are made invisible in advertising and mass media”. She chose American Apparel because of their self-promoting claims that the models are everyday women. When in reality, these women are the stereo typical models used throughout mass media. She says:

“Women with disabilities go unrepresented, not only in American Apparel advertising, but also in most of popular culture. Rarely, if ever, are women with disabilities portrayed in anything other than an asexual manner…Too often, the pervasive influence of imagery in mass media goes unexamined, consumed en masse by the public. However, this imagery has real, oppressive effects on people who are continuously ‘othered’ by society. The model Jes Sachse, and I intend to reveal these stories by placing her in a position where women with disabilities are typically excluded.”

The American Able project is a spoof on the American Apparel ad campaigns. The statement for the “American Able” project is clear. Jes Sachse’s and Holly Norris’s intention to create social change in advertising and mass media is palpable and made possible due to this project and all of those that cleverly dedicate themselves to unveiling the cunning discrimination that thrives in our society. “American Able” was part of “Contacting Toronto”, a group exhibit that showed on digital screens in 50 Toronto Transit Commission stations in 2010. It is also included in the women’s health text, “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Visit the Holly Norris website to view the full collection of images for this project. They are provocative, playful, sexual and refreshing. This project is well done and captures every detail that defines the aesthetic of American Apparel ads while providing a context by which diversity can be defined. Also, read the Disability Scoop article, “Can Disability Be Sexy”. Discussing the American Able” project, the author Michelle Diament challenges the notions of what it means to be a woman with disabilities in popular culture.