March 12th, 2008

US Retailer Faces Row Over Donation Deal

By Andrew Clark
The Guardian (UK)

With its vast billboards displaying rippling six packs, heaving cleavages and jeans at half mast, the American fashion retailer Abercrombie & Fitch has few qualms about using sex appeal to sell clothes.

So activists have questioned whether its name should be above the door of a children’s hospital.

One of America’s largest pediatric institutes, the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is facing angry protests over a decision to grant “naming rights” to A&F in return for a $10m donation.

Under the philanthropic deal, the hospital’s casualty centre will become the Abercrombie & Fitch Emergency Department and Trauma Centre. Critics say it is a sponsorship arrangement gone too far.

“Corporate naming rights are an inherently slippery slope,” says Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“A&F is way down that slope.”

A&F pushes the boundaries of suggestivity more than other mainstream American retailers. Police in Virginia last month confiscated posters from one store showing semi-exposed buttocks and breasts. They cited the manager with an obscenity charge.

The firm’s present range includes a T-shirt declaring that “one man’s junk is another woman’s treasure” and promotional A&F magazines have used photography by Bruce Weber, famous for his objectification of the male physique.

At the firm’s new London store last year, customers were greeted by two models wearing nothing but jeans and flipflops.

“They’ve built their brand by sexualising and objectifying children,” said Linn. “A company which has such cynical disregard for childrens’ wellbeing should not be allowed to align itself with healing.”

The controversy is part of a broader debate in America about the spread of corporate sponsorship over public facilities. One local authority in Wisconsin recently offered to sell the rights to name its high schools. McDonald’s courted controversy in Florida by advertising on student report cards.

A Florida museum even raised money last year by auctioning the naming rights to a new species of butterfly discovered by its researchers.

The president of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s fundraising foundation, Jon Fitzgerald, said A&F was one of many companies which support the hospital’s mission to provide care regardless of patients’ ability to pay.

“As a not-for-profit, freestanding children’s hospital, philanthropy is central to our ability to fulfill that mission and we are grateful to all donors that choose to support our work,” he said.

In a statement, an A&F spokesman said: “We are proud of our long-standing relationship with this hospital and pleased to help secure its bright future.”

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