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Harriet Walker: Are you 'smart' enough for Abercrombie?


Given the current lag in consumer perkiness, we've seen all manner of discounting, BOGOFs and aspirational advertising as part of a sector-wide plea for us to part with cash in the name of economic growth. So here's an interesting tactic from preppy pre-teen haven Abercrombie & Fitch – the offer of compensation to a cast member (above) of reality TV show Jersey Shore on the condition he cease wearing its clothes.

Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino is a muscled buffoon whose boisterous antics on the "manipulated reality" programme have been closely monitored by cameras for two years. During that time he has made more than $5m in deals with Reebok and rap stars, from his workout DVD, a ghost-written autobiography and range of vitamin pills. He has also starred alongside Bristol Palin in a film promoting teen abstinence. America loves him.

But Abercrombie does not. The Situation, (so-called because "everywhere [he goes] there is a new situation"), represents exactly the bone-headed, spray-tanned, keg-chugging, 'yo, hey man, dude'-ing imbeciles who don't spend enough in its 325 stores worldwide. His dive bar athleticism is not the sort that Abercrombie wants to promote. Rather it's aiming at prissy teenage girls who dress like it's summer camp all year round; it wants the guys who wear trackpants even though they're heirs to millions – it's more Ivy League than street, more of a public school sports aesthetic, as opposed to what people who play sport really wear.

Because what's the point in selling things that people need? There's no future in that: People Who Need buy less than People Who Want. One market has a glass celing, the other elastic potential. And in order to maintain Want, one has to aggressively patrol one's brand identity. Which means paying off people like "The Sitch" (as he's known to his fans) before people notice his T-shirts, just as an estate agent might shoo away the swarm of feral cats before the prospective buyer comes along.

If anything, the sluggish retail market right now makes brand integrity and identity even more important. Losing your cool points at a time like this is the kiss of death. Intangible and aspirational abstracts are what the empty high street is running on right now; it's no coincidence that Woolworths and Jane Norman went bust – no one looked up to them. Nobody ever walked into Woolsworths and felt like they weren't good enough.

"We are deeply concerned that Mr Sorrentino's association ... could cause significant damage to our image," A&F said. "We have therefore offered a substantial payment ... to have the character wear an alternative brand. We have extended this to other members of the cast and are urgently waiting a response."

That the matter has become urgent is indicative of how anaemic any brand is in times like these; that Abercrombie is happy for this pay-off to be public proves that companies, and therefore consumers, are happy to be exclusive in times like these.

Let's not forget that Abercrombie's USP is snootiness and body fascism – it recruited employees for a London store from a selection ofmodels, scrutinising abs and Adam's apples before hiring them. It also once reportedly forbade the wearing of a prosthetic arm on the shop floor and suggested the employee in question work in a back room. So this ban is just another instance of A&F's "cruel to be cool" mentality.