2 min

American Apparel refuses to cover its Butt

Remember Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004? As Timberlake sang, “gonna have you nekkid by the end of this song,” he reached over and ripped away part of Jackson’s bustier revealing her right boob and snazzy nipple shield.

Within a second of the unveiling, the camera cut to a wide shot of the audience, the stage lights went out, the boob was gone and the crowd went wild with whistles and applause.

The story was huge.

Jackson famously apologized, explaining that her boob peeked out accidentally because of a wardrobe malfunction.

“Unfortunately the whole thing went wrong in the end,” she said in a video statement. “I am really sorry if I offended anyone.”

Jackson made a big mistake with that apology. She should have said, “Listen, I didn’t intend for my boob fly out like that. I’m sorry. But c’mon, lighten up. The audience loved it. Nobody’s eyeballs burst into flames. It’s only a boob; everybody’s mother has a set.”

That approach would have been a victory for free expression and great for Jackson’s career.

The story illustrates that although sexuality is hugely engaging there’s this bizarre sense that public displays of it are somehow damaging to media consumers.

Another case in point is Xtra West’s Sex Issue from April 2006. On the cover is a beautiful James Loewen photograph of two naked gay men in a sexy embrace. Publishing it came with risks.

We prepared for angry letters and phone calls. Some of our advertising account managers were convinced that the content would negatively impact advertising revenues. We considered that some distributors might think the image crossed some line of respectability.

When the issue went out it was fabulously popular. We couldn’t keep copies on the stands. Our readers were never more engaged. Knots of people were seen standing around Xtra West boxes poring over the paper. Months later we were still fielding back-issue requests. Xtra West went on to have a reasonably good year for advertising revenues. Vancouver Magazine subsequently ran a similar sex issue citing some of the same sources we did, including one of our cover models and writers.

On the downside, we got a few expected angry letters and phone calls. There was a polite inquiry from the city newspaper-box regulator asking if we intended to run naked men on our covers often. We lost one small advertising client, who frankly had been a pain in the ass for years. Most disappointingly, our distributor in Calgary refused to work with Xtra West again. That amounted to 300 copies that were easily re-allocated to other places, but sadly gay and lesbian Calgarians were deprived for a time of access to the print version of our west- coast paper.

I’ve never regretted that we took those risks. It was great, and our balancing act of pushing the envelope of free sexual expression and living to publish another day goes on.

That’s why it’s so wonderful to read in this issue about the recent flap over American Apparel’s support of Butt magazine. When the story first broke in the mainstream I was sure I knew the outcome. American Apparel would pull Butt from its stores, issue an apology to its customers and fire some poor schmo from the purchasing department.

Instead it called Butt “a wonderful fashion, culture and art magazine,” acknowledged that it was a hot seller and said it would continue to offer it to its customers.

American Apparel handled the objection and hysterical mainstream media coverage rationally and brilliantly. It’s so encouraging that a large US retailer is willing to embrace sexual expression — gay sexual expression — not only as a moral and aesthetic act of goodness but also as a singularly effective marketing tool.

I feel a shopping trip coming on.