How a Fashion Brand Addressed a Bad Situation

In December of 2009, MTV debuted the reality show Jersey Shore, starring eight housemates as they shared a summer home near New Jersey’s Atlantic Ocean beaches. The program showed a life of partying and interpersonal tension over its six-season, three-year run. The show had millions of fans, although it’s not clear if these viewers were fans of the cast or laughing at them; the characters were often vain and vapid, and their lives were marked by dysfunction and in one instance, off-camera violence. They were hardly role models.

And that posed a problem for Abercrombie & Fitch. Maybe.

Pictured above is Mike Sorrentino, the Jersey Shore member best known as “The Situation.” He’s not wearing a shirt in that picture, and while that was commonly his attire, at times, he did, in fact, wear clothes. And at times, some of those clothes were sold by fashion brand Abercrombie & Fitch. (The Guardian once noted that Sorrentino was “known for showing off his ‘six-pack’ and flashing the A&F logo on his underwear.”) As The Situation’s fame grew, so would his endorsement possibilities — it’d be expected for brands to pay him to wear their stuff. But in this case, Abercrombie wasn’t doing that. If anything, the opposite was true.

In November of 2011, at what may have been the peak of Jersey Shore’s popularity, Abercrombie came out publicly as anti-Shore. The company issued a press release which, per the Washington Post, articulated their belief that “this association [between Abercrombie and Jersey Shore] is contrary to the aspirational nature of our brand, and may be distressing to many of our fans.” Abercrombie, per its press release, wanted to make the best of what they saw as a bad situation; they offered Sorrentino a “substantial payment” — later reported as $10,000 — to wear something else. Then they extended that offer to all of his housemates, too. It was, perhaps, the first ever anti-endorsement deal.

None of Shore crew took Abercrombie up on its offer, and while it’s likely that A&F would have forked over the $10k had one of them done so, it’s hard to conclude that the offer was made in earnest. While Abercrombie’s public relations team had been trying to separate their brand from Jersey Shore, the products team had other ideas. The retailer had been selling items which had the slogans intentionally referencing Jersey Shore and Sorrentino; specifically one could buy t-shirts with Sorrentino-inspired slogans like “The Fitchuation” and “GTL . . .  you know the deal.” (For those unfamiliar with the show, here’s a video of Sorrentino explaining his GTL credo.) But not everyone was amused. That September, Sorrentino turned the tables on Abercrombie and filed a lawsuit against the clothing retailer, seeking $4 million in damages for this unauthorized use.

Sorrentino ended up losing the lawsuit for rather boring reasons around trademark law, although the court noted that Abercrombie stuck to its disassociation argument throughout; A&F’s defense included, in part, that the shirts were part of the anti-endorsement; they were meant as a joke, targeting Sorrentino and the general dysfunction of the Jersey Shore cast. Whether that’s believable or not is hard to say, but in any event, Sorrentino didn’t get his $4 million or that $10,000 — but he can still wear whatever brand of underwear he likes.

Bonus fact: For most of the first season, one of Sorrentino’s castmates, Nicole Polizzi (better known as “Snooki”), was regularly seen carrying a Coach handbag, but suddenly, that changed, and she was rocking a new bag each episode. The Observer explains how she could afford such a habit — especially given the negative brand hit luxury companies felt from being associated with her, and it turns out, her situation was a lot like the Situation’s situation: “Allegedly, the anxious folks at these various luxury houses are all aggressively gifting our gal Snookums with free bags. No surprise, right? But here’s the shocker: They are not sending her their own bags. They are sending her each other’s bags! Competitors‘ bags!”

From the Archives: New Jersey’s Shockingly Dangerous Water Slide: Jersey Shore wasn’t the worst thing to come out of the state.