To end associations with the Proud Boys, Fred Perry needs to do more than stop selling them shirts

Restricting US sales will only strengthen the neo-fascists’ bond with the shirts they use as a uniform. The brand needs a big ad campaign to show it stands for the opposite ideology.

Photo: Mohammed Berrada

There is a brilliant Mitchell and Webb sketch from about a decade ago. Two Nazi officers are surveying the Russian Front. After a series of vexing questions about the uniforms they are both wearing, the officer pauses and then asks the other: “Are we the baddies?”

Whenever the forces of oppression and hatred assemble, they do so in a swish, if slightly menacing, way. From Hitler’s overt focus on tight, Aryan symbology to the fetching blue uniforms of Franco’s Nationalists or the formal splendour of Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts. Whenever a right-leaning foe rises, it tends to do so in a spanky outfit with terrific tailoring and a real eye for detail.

And it’s happening all over again in America. The far-right extremist group known as the Proud Boys has been making news for two weeks. That’s partly because – in one of the thousand insane moments of his presidency – Donald Trump name-checked them during his recent debate with Joe Biden. But also because of the way that the group, vilified for their anti-Muslim, anti-transgender, and anti-immigration views, dress themselves.

For several years members of the group have worn black and yellow Fred Perry shirts with the Wimbledon-inspired laurel logo and striped collars. The prominence and popularity of the shirt among the Proud Boy movement has become a constant concern for Fred Perry’s Japanese owners – Hit Union. The company is clearly bemused why a British brand, founded by the son of a socialist MP, who started a business with a Jewish entrepreneur, would become so popular with American neo-fascists.

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Indeed, Fred Perry’s leadership team are so vexed by the association they are doing something about it. “We have seen that the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt is taking on a new and very different meaning in North America as a result of its association with the Proud Boys,” the company said in a public statement.

“That association is something we must do our best to end. We have therefore made the decision to stop selling the Black/Yellow/Yellow twin tipped shirt in the US from September 2019, and we will not sell it there or in Canada again until we’re satisfied that its association with the Proud Boys has ended.”

Advertising is the answer

It’s admirable stuff from Fred Perry but I have bad news for the management team. It’s not going to work. If we have learned anything over the past marketing century it is that attempting to deprive a market segment of the brand they desire usually has exactly the opposite effect upon them.

Indeed, if you really want to make something hot among any group, the use of faux-exclusivity or – even better – a genuine attempt to exclude people from the product typically sends them rabid with desire. De-list a salad cream and once-uninterested consumers start bulk-buying it. Make your clothing in sizes that won’t fit older blokes and they will queue up around the block to squeeze their big units into it.

Shutting down sales of black and yellow Fred Perry shirts in America will have zero impact on the proportion of them being worn by the Proud Boys. It will most likely exacerbate the situation. Those who already own a shirt will treasure and wear it with even greater pride. And the rest of the membership will resort to the grey and black markets to ensure that they too look like all their fascist mates.

Markets are efficient, even fascist ones – perhaps especially fascist ones – and these customers will quickly find a way to get the look that complements their alt-right idiocy.

It’s time for Fred Perry to paint its brand, and especially its black and yellow shirts, in colours that every self-respecting Proud Boy abhors.

If Fred Perry is serious about turning off its Proud Boy customer base it will need to graduate from deprivation to disgust. And the good news is that by adopting this alternative solution they might just win a whole new market, one which outnumbers the Proud Boys a thousand times over.

Fred Perry does not spend a lot of money on advertising in the US. Consequently, the brand is familiar but largely blank in terms of cultural associations. That emptiness has allowed the Proud Boys to make the brand their own and imbue it with moronic, right-wing associations. But this can be fixed.

What Fred Perry needs is a new advertising campaign with the sole objective of making every Proud Boy uncomfortable enough to never wear their shirt again. The anthropologist Grant McCracken once described advertising as a “diecasting mechanism” that paints a commodity with the colours of culture to create a brand. It’s time for Fred Perry to paint its brand, and especially its black and yellow shirts, in colours that every self-respecting Proud Boy abhors.

And that won’t be hard. The Proud Boys are clear on what they think – in their fucked-up, little-man ideology – the world should look like. Fred Perry just has to represent the exact opposite of all of it. The Proud Boys are an all-male organisation, for example. Their loyalty oath includes a section where you must admit to being a “proud Western chauvinist”. So, we are going to need an all-female ad for starters.

Given the “Western” bit we also need to ensure our new ad features not just women, but women with diverse, multi-cultural origins. And given the Proud Boys are solidly homophobic too we also need them to be lesbians. And not the pretend, imagined sapphic erotica of frat boy fantasy either. We need a proper, authentic lesbian couple drawn from very different cultural corners of the world to star in our new ad campaign.

Replace hate with love

Weirdly, George Takei (Sulu from Star Trek) is way ahead of us. Last week he reappropriated the #proudboys hashtag and encouraged the gay community to post fantastically gay images using the hashtag. Within hours the regular images of angry white men in black polo shirts shouting at everything had been replaced with hundreds of passionate, gay embraces. Love literally replacing hate.

The Proud Boys were so offended that the organisation’s leaders debated changing their name to the Leathermen (I am not making this up) without clearly thinking any of this through. Alas the name-change never came to pass. But the general horror with which Sulu’s gay takeover was received by the Proud Boys should provide some hope that our new campaign strategy might just work.

Next point. The Proud Boys don’t like masturbation. Don’t ask me why, I have no clue. I don’t want to know. They initially asked all their members to pledge not to masturbate at all and then, in a more recent development, allowed each member one opportunity a month to spank the fascist monkey.

Given this weird sexual reticence our ad also needs to be overtly sexual. I mean jaw droppingly explicit. It’s not enough to have diverse, committed lesbians in our ad. We need diverse, committed lesbians getting it on in a quite spectacular fashion. A lot.

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We need some kind of inescapable strapline at the end too. I don’t just want our target audience to be shocked by what they see, I need them to be positively disgusted by it and feel like it somehow implicates them in this orgy of diverse, feminine, awesome, sexual activity. Something like ‘Wear your Fred Perry with Pride’. Not strong enough? How about ‘Our laurel leaf logo was originally inspired by labia’. Yeah, that should do it.

In terms of media we need a proper dose of cultural imprinting. We don’t just want each Proud Boy to see our new sexy ad, we want them to know that all the other Proud Boys, and the rest of us, saw it too. I would go with outdoor advertising. We need our ad to be splashed, in as big a format as possible, across as many outdoor sites as Fred Perry can afford. Giant. Massive. Interracial lesbian sex. In black and yellow shirts.

If Fred Perry really wants to rid itself of this obnoxious customer-base it needs a new brand image. One that makes the Proud Boys ashamed and delights the rest of us.