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American Apparel ad featuring California farmer sparks controversy


American Apparel ad

American Apparel, peddler of the omnipresent monochromatic v-neck t-shirt, is facing criticism for an ad that it claims promotes diversity. The ad features two models and identifies them as "Robin a USC student, studying Public Relations, with Raul, a California farmer in Denim and Chambray. Summer 2011." (Update: Although the criticism is recent, the ad is from 2011. You can see two versions in the American Apparel archives here and here.)

A portion of the ad reads:

We embrace the ecelectic community right in our backyard, which leads us to the Cali girl and the Cowboy. Robin is a student at neighboring USC. She’s also a pole vaulter photographer, karaoke singer, and lover of bon fires and dogs. Raul is an immigrant from Mexico. He used to make his living picking strawberries on a farm, but now works at a nearby nursery preparing the seeds for farmers. This unlikely pair is what we’re all about, bringing people together and making things happen.

In a blog on Colorlines, writer Jorge Rivas wrote:

There is something that feels off in the ad that stars Raul and Robin. Both subjects look uncomfortable with each other and as a result both subjects look like props.

Gawker writer Louis Peitzman chimed in:

Among all the photos of pseudo-hipster porn was a shot of USC student Robin flanked by real-life California farmer Raul. I'm all for more ethnic diversity among American Apparel models, but this feels weirdly tone deaf. There's a thin line between exposure and exploitation.

Comedian Fahim Anwar tweeted out the ad on May 19:

The company claims the ads are not meant to be controversial.

"Honestly, we're not sure what the problem is," said an American Apparel spokesperson in an e-mail. "Raul is a family friend and the photos turned out great, so we developed them into an ad and put it on our website. The whole controversy seems a bit contrived."

American Apparel isn't the first outlet to be accused of using people of color as props, although often such criticism is centered around the practice of relegating models to the background of a photo, as opposed to placing them front and center. A few years ago, the website Racialicous criticized a Nylon Magazine fashion spread, in which the singer Beth Dittor plays cards with a woman dressed as a maid, for using the housekeeper as "background color. More recently, fashion bloggers said Donna Karan's use of local children in a 2012 ad campaign that was shot in Haiti was yet another example of "minorities in the background."

The company is as famous for its hipster garb as for the controversy it generates with its advertising. But the company has also come under scrutiny for its alleged treatment of plus-sized customers, allegations of sexual harassment against founder Dov Charney, and charges of immigration law violations.

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