Known for being fearlessly risqué, American Apparel has yet again used shock tactics to its advantage. Its latest effort: using nudity to sell clothes. The company has rolled out a banner ad that displays a topless model – boobs, nipples and a tantalizing unzipping of her top.
Of course, American Apparel has attracted attention for some time now, with its open embrace of sex as an integral part of its brand image. "Yes there's shock value to these ads – that's what our advertising strategy is about," explains Ryan Holiday who does online strategy for American Apparel. "We photograph models in a way that's honest – we aren't so constrained by the rules."
The nude ads are currently displayed on only two blogs- Debauchette  and Reverse Cowgirl  – both of which deal with sex and neither of which have had any advertising on them before (look on the right of either site for the banner ads or scroll to the bottom of this post). Holiday explains that the company chose the blogs because employees are personal fans of them and because they don't enforce the same restrictions that mainstream publications do. Recently, American Apparel had to switch out an underwear ad on design blog, The Sartorialist, because the site's users complained. The company is also talking to other publishers who might be amenable to running the ads.
The attention the new campaign is attracting online is exactly what American Apparel wants. The brand has worked hard at creating an image for itself that is "soaked in youth and sex".  Provocative advertising is their artillery. Their site even has a special section labeled "provocative ads." 
"These ads were Dov's idea – it's something he's been wanting to do for a long time," says Holiday. Dov = Dov Charney, the company's controversial founder and CEO, who is known for conducting meetings in his underwear,
and even in the nude, and was recently has been sued for sexual harassment  (creating a "hostile" work environment) earlier this month. several times in the past (all suits were denied or settled.) Charney is currently being sued for wrongful termination and has also been accused of keeping nude pictures of female employees on his computer, something Holiday was quick to point out was for business reasons -- the employee also happened to be a model for American Apparel.
"I mean you could say its an inopportune time," says Holiday when asked whether rolling out the nude ads at a time when Charney is being sued
for nudity in the workplace amongst other things is really the best move. "When you see the way the lawsuit is represented in mainstream media like the Wall Street Journal, they seem not to get what American Apparel is all about. But if you look at the response to the ad from young people there are no negative responses – they're a different generation. You could say there's sort of disconnect between how mainstream media reports on American Apparel and how younger people perceive what the company is doing," he adds.
Is American Apparel worried about a backlash against the new ads? "No because we're very open about sexuality," says Holiday.
What happened to the American Apparel that was about sustainability? Why all the raciness? "Whatever the polls might say -- ethical consumers were a niche. (Charney) wasn't going to sell as many T-shirts as he wanted by targeting a niche; he wanted a generation," writes Rob Walker  in the June issue of Fast Company magazine. Charney's way of widening this demographic – sex and youth or making "sexy T-shirts for young people."
But do ads featuring topless ads run the risk of alienating part of American Apparel's user base and narrowing the brand's appeal? Holiday is of the opinion that it won't, because the company is targeting a niche. "These two blogs talk about sex and people who work in the sex industry. The ads let us reach out to an interesting audience, one that is normally ignored."
So American Apparel wants to go mainstream but it's advertising for a niche audience? "We're mainstream in the sense that Obama is mainstream -- we are connecting lots of small groups together into a big audience. We also advertise very heavily on sites like MySpace and Facebook. We did a big campaign on the Sartorial," says Holiday.
The company's ad strategy is about tailoring different advertisements for different demographics. For Reverse Cowgirl and Debauchette, the company actually had a photographer and a model read the content and then design the ads for those blogs in particular. The ad on Debauchette for instance is more provocative than the one on Reverse Cowgirl, reflecting the content of the different sites.
But is there a disconnect between the product itself and the advertising? Much of American Apparel's clothing is basic and simple, with not a hint of suggestiveness. By comparison, their ads are provocative, controversial and steaming hot. When I asked Holiday about this, he explained: "The company's clothes may not be particularly suggestive, but there's no reason why normal can't be sexy. That girl is unbelievably sexy in the ad- she's doing that with vintage clothing. We don't airbrush and we use normal models."
So what comes after the boob and the nipple? Stay tuned. I'm sure Charney won't disappoint.
Update:I spoke with Charney who strongly denies ever having held meetings in the nude. As for colleagues seeing him in his underwear: "It's like if you're a bathing suit designer, and you're wearing a bathing suit. If you're an underwear designer, naturally you'd have to be in the underwear to show it to your colleagues," he says.
Charney goes on to point out that Keith Fink, the lawyer who alleged that he held meetings in the nude was fined $7500 for fabricating evidence and is currently being investigated by the state bar. "He's a celebrity ambulance chaser," says Charney, "He has a history of chasing our company around and has also exploited other celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres. Do you watch Gossip Girl? I mean imagine if the creator of Gossip Girl was sued for sexual harassment. It's like I live in this alternate world. I have 10,000 employees, there are bound to be problems. We are now starting to have contracts that employees sign that preclude them from filing a public suit... I have never propositioned anyone in a manner that wasn't becoming of a positive work environment. A few people have suggested this as a means of trying to correct money in a corrupt lawsuit."
While allegations of him conducting meetings in the nude are included in the plaintiff's claim of wrongful termination, he insists these will be stricken from the record as they have no bearing on the case at hand.