Abercrombie & Fitch, the apparel retailer known for sexually provocative quarterly catalogs dressed - or undressed - to resemble magazines, is now taking a commercially provocative step.
For the first time, the company, which regularly comes under fire for the nude photographs that appear in the catalog, known as the A&F Quarterly, is selling advertising space in the publication to other marketers seeking to reach consumers ages 18 to 24, the primary market for Abercrombie & Fitch.
The change, described as an experiment, begins with the summer issue of the A&F Quarterly, which has been mailed to subscribers and is on sale at Abercrombie & Fitch stores. Initially, the outside marketers are being limited to four in each issue, in a separate section, and each must buy a two-page ad, known as a spread.
The eight ad pages in the summer issue were bought for SoBe beverages; the Sony Computer Entertainment division of Sony, for the Sony PlayStation 2 video game system; the Trek Bicycle Corporation; and the WB television network. Though neither Abercrombie & Fitch nor the advertisers would discuss the rates, the price per ad page is being estimated in the low five figures.
The decision is indicative of how the lines continue to blur between advertising and editorial content as media companies and marketers struggle to generate revenue to overcome difficulties caused by the soft economy. Several other retailers and apparel marketers have already opened their catalogs or magazines to outside advertisers, among them L. L. Bean, Louis Boston, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
As more advertisers like Abercrombie & Fitch, Coca-Cola and the Ford Motor Company assume a more direct role in determining the editorial content of the media in which they advertise, media companies are moving to accommodate advertisers by increasing product placements in episodes of television series, introducing publications that celebrate shopping without critical coverage or changing the color of the staples at the center of magazines to match the hue desired by advertisers.
Indeed, in a coincidental confluence of interests between advertiser and publisher, the ad in the A&F Quarterly from WB, promoting its series "Smallville," features two of the show's stars, one of whom, Tom Welling, who portrays Superman as a teenager, formerly modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch. The issue also carries an interview with Eddie Kaye Thomas, a star of another WB series, "Off Centre."
"We found it very intriguing," Bob Bibb, co-president for advertising, marketing and promotion at WB in Burbank, Calif., said of the opportunity to advertise in the quarterly. He took the space after he was assured that WB "could be the exclusive network television advertiser."
The primary appeal, Mr. Bibb said, was the "uncluttered environment" in which to reach the college-age audience, referring to the limited number of marketers in each issue, because "if you put a spread in any other magazine, you're one of a thousand advertisers." WB is owned by AOL Time Warner and the Tribune Company.
For SoBe, "it makes sense because their target market, 18-to-24-year-old kids, is our target market," said Kristine Hinck, a spokeswoman for the South Beach Beverage Company in Norwalk, Conn., part of the Pepsi-Cola North America unit of PepsiCo. "It's a good fit."
The A&F Quarterly, introduced in fall 1997, has a circulation of about 200,000. Abercrombie & Fitch, which is based in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, also distributes a traditional catalog, without the articles or the photographs by Bruce Weber of scantily clad young men and women. The ads will not appear in the traditional catalog, which has a circulation of about a million.
The quarterly is produced by Abercrombie & Fitch along with its agency, Shahid & Company in New York.
Accepting outside advertising "was something we've thought about for a long time," said Sam Shahid, the president and creative director at the agency, who is also the creative director for Abercrombie & Fitch.
"We were worried about it being too commercial," Mr. Shahid added, "but with four advertisers, only spreads and a section to itself, we thought we'd try it."
"It looks great," he said - or at least, readers "aren't complaining about it."
Each issue of the quarterly typically elicits vociferous complaints, usually from adults upset about barely dressed models. An editorial last week in The Wall Street Journal castigated the quarterly for looking "more like a 300-page soft-core porn magazine than the mail-order catalog it purports to be."
By carrying ads from other marketers, Abercrombie & Fitch may be causing more headaches for itself because protesters, rebuffed by the retailer, may instead exert pressure on the outside advertisers.
Mr. Shahid said that possibility did not trouble him because "it happens to every publication," adding that the advertisers "know what the magazine's about, and they feel fine."
Mr. Bibb at WB said that his network "did our due diligence on who gets the magazine" and was satisfied that the measures taken by Abercrombie & Fitch - like asking buyers of the quarterly at stores for proof of age - mean that "we wouldn't be doing a disservice to our parental and family viewers."
Still, he added, laughing, "I don't think you'll be seeing ads for `Seventh Heaven' " in the quarterly, referring to the WB series favored by children and young families.
Ms. Hinck at South Beach Beverage said that although the editorial content of the quarterly "may be too much for some people, SoBe is all about freedom of expression."
Marketers have the freedom, of course, to consider advertising in whatever publications they want, and scores of regular magazines are also aimed at the youthful demographic. In fact, WB advertises in many of them, Mr. Bibb said, particularly those owned by its AOL Time Warner corporate sibling, Time Inc., like Entertainment Weekly, People and Teen People.
Rob Gregory, publisher of Rolling Stone in New York, another magazine with a large college-age readership, praised the executives behind the quarterly.
"Everything they do is edgy and sexy and delivers a demographic that is increasingly courted by marketers," said Mr. Gregory, whose magazine is owned by Wenner Media. "But true success with this for a retailer is very hard to come by."
"I would wish them well and say ad sales is harder than it looks these days," he added, "and they'll have to be accountable" for delivering the audience they promise.
At Jane in New York - a magazine from the Fairchild Publications division of Advance Publications that is read by many college-age women - Eva Dillon, vice president and publisher, said: "Who hasn't come after this demographic and advertising base? I'm confident what they're doing is so different, it won't really compete with what we do. My feeling is, bring it on."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. May 3, 2002
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