Los Angeles-based clothing retailer American Apparel have been globally criticised for their latest controversial print advert featuring a topless model – who is also an employee for the brand – with the slogan ‘Made in Bangladesh’ strategically positioned across her chest.

While nudity in the advert is controversial in itself, it seems the uproar is more about the confusion over its intended message and its effectiveness.

Al though the actual garments sold by American Apparel are fairly innocuous and could be described as ‘basics’ – comfortable and simply cut underwear and outerwear available in a rainbow of colours – those familiar with the brand will know that contentious ads have been one of the company’s key marketing strategies. Their previous campaigns usually featured female models causally lounging around, semi-naked in their ‘basics’ and in very suggestive positions.

Flickr_William Murphy

What makes this particular advert (which we can’t publish due to its nature) different from its predecessors is that it appears to be making a statement about the ethical treatment of garment workers.  The copy under the image doesn’t say this outright, but certainly suggests it. It introduces us to Maks, an American Apparel merchandiser who was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and raised in the Muslim faith. She moved to LA when she was four. It ends saying that the jeans she’s wearing were manufactured by “23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare.” It’s clearly no coincidence that Dhaka is where Rana Plaza factory collapsed last year killing 1,129 low wage Bangladeshi garment workers.

American Apparel’s slogan at the bottom of the ad – Sweatshop Free – was coined in 2002. This focus on ‘ethical’ local LA manufacturing with US citizen employees is also one of their biggest selling strategies and there is no doubt that this ad is also a direct dig at many of their high street competitors who had goods under manufacture in Dhaka at the time of the tragedy.

The treatment of garment workers is a very important topic and one that deserves more media attention, but the question that most news outlets are asking is whether it is necessary to have a bare-breasted woman to draw this attention and whether this is just another of American Apparel’s usual stunts to sell fairly ‘vanilla’ clothing through scandal and provocation.

In an attempt to reassure readers that this is not a case of female exploitation, the brand said: “A woman continuously in search of creative outlets, Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot.” As much as they’ve made the ad about her story, she doesn’t appear to be personally or overtly voicing an opinion on the rights of garment workers in this ad or in her interview with the Daily Mail, where she said: “We should all be able to freely express ourselves no matter where we come from. I fully support the message of the ad. I love and embrace all cultures and religions. I am choosing to be creative and expressing myself freely.”

In an interesting twist this advert controversy comes a few days after American Apparel released their lacklustre preliminary financial results for 2013. It will be interesting to see if this advert will help or hinder this debt-heavy company that has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy before.

Images: Flickr