The Financial Times reports that Italian fashion house Benetton will be going private, amidst a spectacular failure of its latest shock advertising campaign. Investors are not particularly enthused about the once high-flying fashion house, and the shock advertising campaigns have failed (not only there), generating not buzz but outrage and threats and loss of sales. The Fall of the Colors of Benetton is the result of a changing market, namely declining numbers of young Western women wanting “shock” and able to pay for it, with growth occurring mostly in very conservative Asia, not the West. The baby bust in the West is killing the appetite for naughty-shock campaigns, and could well kick the financial underpinnings out of one of the major sources of cultural rot: the fashion industry.
The latest scandal involving Benetton was a photoshopped picture of Pope Benedict kissing Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque. Predictably, Catholics were not amused, and Muslims threatened to kill lots of people. The campaign was pulled, and groveling apologies commenced. But this about-face only served to highlight Benetton’s weakness.
The company grew, by franchising. Which did not require lots of capital but gave up control. The company focused on managing the franchisees, not the merchandise. Benetton lacked global control, consistency, and the ability to move merchandise in and out of stores in response to increasingly more rapid changes in fashion. By contrast, Inditex (Zara) and H&M own their own shops, and follow the Apple Store model. Zara boasts it can take a new product to stores in two weeks, Benetton like most of the industry takes six months.
Benetton is not alone. Urban Outfitters learnt that lesson with their racy campaign featuring underage models in a Lesbian kiss. A Mother’s boycott soon emerged, and given tight consumer budgets and decreasing not increasing consumer spending, Urban Outfitters is already seeing an impact.
Female fashion is not the 1980’s, with lots of teen girls with lots of money to spend seeking to outrage and shock to generate attention. There are a lot fewer (White) female teens with money, and the money they have comes mostly from Mom. Who is not too keen on attention-whoring (as the phrase goes). Moreover, the internet has pushed young White female fashionistas towards “value” seeking lower-cost but more unique looks. Uniqlo and others are pushing this, offering new fabrics and materials, at lower costs. The fashion industry still pushes girls and women to buy newer stuff, that no one else has, but the selling line is value and uniqueness of the clothes, rather than the shock value of the advertising campaign. Planned new products include color-changing clothes, improved anti-wrinkling, and other new technology that is proprietary to various lines allowing a higher price than rivals. Uniqueness based on value not shock. With the selling experience carefully controlled by a top-down global merchandising hierarchy.
With a larger population, girls and women sought to stand out in the 1980’s. To provoke, generate attention, be unique among the large swath of the youth population. The famous advertising campaign of the Colors of Benetton, which featured happy, multicultural/multiracial models and “shock” campaigns no longer works. Not only has the internet made the most shocking images available to anyone interested, the culture has moved so far to the left that there is no more shock left. When the most popular youth show “Glee” (highest ratings for teen females) features two underage male characters in a gay kiss, on Primetime on Broadcast TV on America’s #2 or #3 Network (depending on how you count), there is not much shock left. Meanwhile, a smaller White teen female population makes fitting in rather than standing out more socially rewarding. Given that “attention must be paid” (apologies to Willy Loman and Arthur Miller) since there are so few of them now anyway. Solidarity with a few peers rather than standing out from a crowd is what pays off socially.
Besides, girls are not working retail anymore. Since retail jobs have fallen dramatically given the internet and automation and sharp declines in consumer spending in the West, teen girls are not earning clothes money in the mall which they then spend. Instead, they get a tightly budgeted amount by Mom. Who as the one who pays, has final approval. And despite all the gay-friendly hoopla, most Moms want grandchildren, not say, a Lesbian partner with adopted African children as Hillary Rosen and her partner below:
This won’t be a sea-change. A female-oriented media will still move inexorably ever farther leftward, that is the nature of things. But, and this is important, it will move leftward at a slower pace. Like the rains and mud that slowed Hitler’s advance on Moscow in October 1941, the Fall of the Colors of Benetton, and the change in young women’s fashion from shock to value, is something. It slows the storm-troopers of cultural change down, to the point where natural forces (Moms want their own grand-kids, not some adopted African baby no matter how trendy it is for Madonna, Charlize Theron, and Angelina Jolie) take over. “Bruno,” the movie from Sasha Baron Cohen, was funny because normal people find adopting an African baby because its trendy (and trading an Ipod Red for him) to be appalling.
And that, is something. A bit of good news amidst the bad.