by Amanda J. Weed

In late 2011, American Apparel, a trendy clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles, produced “The Next Big Thing” modeling contest campaign to promote its new line of XL-size clothing. In the past, American Apparel was criticized for only offering up to a “large” size for most of its women’s clothing. The call for contest entries opened the American Apparel brand to a new demographic of female consumers who wear an XL size (equivalent to an American size 12/14). Like American Apparel’s current practice of soliciting consumers and everyday women, instead of professional models, the company asked its customers to be the face for the new XL line of American Apparel products.

Yet, the response toward the XL modeling contest from was anything but positive. The call was meant to be cute and playful, which was consistent with the American Apparel brand, but the public and the media accused the company of being demeaning to larger-size women.  Days after American Apparel launched the contest through its website, Jezebel, an online women’s magazine, reported on the American Apparel XL contest, counter-framing it as “semi-offensive.”

American Apparel XL Modeling Content Homepage

Photo originally published by Jezebel

Nancy Upton, a college student from Texas, read the Jezebel article and decided to create a satirical entry into the content. Instead of the usual modeling poses, Upton, counter-framed the typical American Apparel advertisement to include images of her eating a rotisserie chicken in a swimming pool, bathing in a tub of ranch dressing, and dousing herself with chocolate syrup while wearing only her underwear. While most contestants wrote a small paragraph about their interests or why they entered the contest, Upton simply wrote, “I’m a size 12. I just can’t stop eating.”

Upton created a blog, “That’s Not Our Demographic,” where she chronicled her experience with the contest. Upton justified her contest entry by writing, “I don’t believe that beauty should be qualified as BECAUSE of someone’s size or IN SPITE of someone’s size. Beauty is beauty, it’s fluid, it’s objective and it doesn’t need to be justified to or by anyone.”

Over the course of 34 days, Upton published 47 posts, which included additional satirical pictures from photo shoot and her musings on the contest experience. Her blog posts were liked, or re-blogged, more than 3,700 times by other Tumblr bloggers. At the same time, Upton’s contest entry had risen to the top among voters on the American Apparel website.

Even though Upton won the online voting for “The Next BIG Thing,” American Apparel did not declare her the winner.  An email from the creative director, posted by Upton on her blog, stated that the prizes would be awarded to other contestants “… that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.”

Online and mainstream media, including Today and AdWeek, began publishing stories about Upton’s contest entry and American Apparel’s decision to not declare her the winner.  Eventually, American Apparel invited Upton to visit the company and provide her input on appealing to plus-size consumer, but it may have been a case of “too little, too late.”

In the “The Next Big Thing” modeling contest, American Apparel illustrated a social fail because forgot a key element of any successful campaign — to conduct consumer research. The campaign was targeting a new consumer demographic, and the company should have taken care to understand the needs and desires of XL-size women. The company should have taken time to conduct focus groups or interviews with women who fit in the target demographic as part of the campaign planning process to understand how to word the contest call in a more appealing way.



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Raphael, R. (2011, September 15). American apparel’s plus-size contest winner is minus prizes. Retrieved from

Stewart, D. (2011, September 14). American Apparel refuses to recognize rightful plus-size contest winner. Jezebel. Retrieved from

Upton, N. (2011, September 14). American apparel responds [Web log message]. Retrieved from