By Claire Walla
It’s been said for ages, and it’s certainly true today: whoever holds the money holds the power.
And while we at City on a Hill Press would like to hold ourselves exempt from this droll reality, we feed into this power equation just like every other money-making system—and sometimes even more so than we would like.
Most recently at CHP, $1,000 bought clothing manufacturer American Apparel a back-page, full-color ad—the most expensive ad-space we offer. The company’s ads were to run in CHP for five weeks straight, which earned our paper a grand total of $5,000. Since the price of printing one week’s issue is roughly $1,200, American Apparel gave us a damn-near free ride through half a quarter’s worth of printing costs.
But we recieved much more than we bargained for.
We were greeted with new content. Packaged right alongside our articles and Op/Eds were images depicting bare-chested girls wearing nothing but tights that gripped their hipless waists while their hands gripped their shirtless chests. The last image, however, depicted a girl in a dress, sans tights—although her dress was so tiny it could have been made from a pair of tights.
The vulnerable-looking girls, slouching over with half-cracked smiles, wear over-sized sunglasses, lay aimlessly on cheap pastel-colored couches, and stare over their shoulders with suggestive, dazed glares, clutching their breasts under the bold headline, “Polka Dotsâ€¦”
After the ad’s first appearance, CHP recieved its first of severl letters, which called the ad “infamous for being, essentially, soft-core porn.” Regarding the same issue, CHP readers Erica Gillingham, Julia Hiser and Kate Shaughnessy wrote, “We believe that this type of nudity is not empowering to women, but rather relies on the commoditization of the female body in order to sell American Apparel tights and thermals.”
We heard your complaints, and because of them our staff was propelled into five weeks of ongoing moral debate. As a college newspaper, we strive to push the limits of cultural acceptance and open controversial lines of dialogue. CHP does not necessarily condemn sex appeal—unless, of course, those limits and lines are unobtrusively crossed.
In our Mar. 8 issue, we ran an Op/Ed against an increasingly sexualized media. “Sex is a part of life that should by no means be taboo in the media, but its pervasiveness is inappropriate, especially when it comes to objectifying young girls to the point of jeopardizing their well-being,” the editorial read. “Young women are at a critical time of development and are forming their identities, and yet their culture is providing them with predominantly sexualized models.”
But of course, the other side always comes into play: there’s no denying the value of a buck. One thousand dollars essentially puts our weekly finances on auto-pilot, freeing our editorial staff to focus on more important issues.
We had unwittingly entangled ourselves in an unprecedented bind: when does ad content become editorial content?
This national American Apparel ad campaign displays young women and some men—most of them American Apparel employees, or friends of the CEO—photographed against backdrops of bed-sheets, couches, white walls and running shower spouts (images that British magazine The Times calls “porno-chic”).
Most of the photographs were shot within the walls of company-owned apartments, behind the lens of cameraman Dov Charney, American Apparel CEO, who has openly admitted to having sexual relations with several American Apparel employees and has faced three sexual harassment lawsuits, also filed by former American Apparel employees. In a 2004 exclusive on theCEO, the 38-year-old was outed by Jane Magazine for masturbating during the interview.
I doubt this sits well with most readers, but it’s worth considering what this even has to do with City on a Hill Press.
Because the mantra still rings true: whoever holds the money holds the power—those at American Apparel have the power to create the ad content of their choice.
But all that changes as soon as the money switches sides. With money comes power, and selling an ad is meaningless if that ad is never published.
The ethical debate seems clear, but it’s clouded by that frustrating notion that money—regardless of its source—funds all of the content in the paper, not just content created in poor taste.
So when does money dictate content?
As one journalist put it, “If you let money speak for you, it drowns out anything else you meant to say.”
The American Apparel controversy snuck up on us, and in the moment, the only unanimous decision we could reach was to maintain ethical business practices, and remain faithful to the contract we signed with American Apparel. But now that all is said and done, and American Apparel has had five weeks to stare readers in the face and provoke just these sorts of issues, we are faced with the notion that this ethical dilemma will sneak up behind us once again. And it inevitably will.
But now we know: money does talk, and control is just a matter of knowing when its pitch is so loud it subdues the rest of our paper’s voice.