What’s a brand to do?

Hip Californian t-shirt purveyors American Apparel recently caught some attention with the display in one the company’s NYC brick-and-mortars: mannequins complete with nipples, pubic hair and see-through lingerie—just before Valentine’s Day. As you might expect, these realer-than-average mannequins generated some conversation.

At first glance, the move seems to be a not-so-subtle, attention-grabbing stunt (not unlike…err, some headlines you may have seen in the past). It’s certainly a bit of that; the higher-ups at American Apparel surely knew this was a conversation-starter considering last week’s holiday. But there’s more to it.

It’s worth thinking about this instance in comparison to the garishly pink and sugar-coated Valentine’s Day displays that are typical of many retailers – walking into any big box store last week hurt my eyes. So loud. So bright. Gigantic, highlighter-pink banners, plush toys, heart-shaped boxes, and all of that good stuff. It’s what we’re generally conditioned to think of when someone mentions “Valentine’s Day.”

So it is that something so normal to the human form comes off as a “stunt”—and that’s exactly what the brand had in mind. Per a statement released after the media took notice of the display:

“American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration. We created it to invite passers-by to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form. This is the same idea behind our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry.”

Plenty of digital ink was spilled on the mannequins—and not without the encouragement of American Apparel itself. As noted by the Washington Post, it’s certainly “more capitalist than feminist.” But judgments on motives or whether the mannequins are in what one might consider “good taste” aside, it’s a noteworthy example of a brand leveraging its identity to make a splash.

Because you’re not going to find similar mannequins in Macy’s. American Apparel hasn’t shied away from risqué marketing in the past; portions of its online shopping portal are decidedly NSFW. The Valentine’s Day display is adherent to American Apparel’s established brand standards, and it bucks a couple of norms—both in terms of what you’re used to seeing in storefronts around this time of year, and what you might expect from a mannequin selling lingerie.

What do you think? Are the mannequins a successful utilization of the American Apparel brand?