The Common Good
May-June 2000

Image Is...Well, Something

by Kari Jo Verhulst | May-June 2000

Benetton's ads open eyes. Can they say lives?

Travel the world over and American-generated advertising frames your view. McDonald’s, Coca Cola, AT&T, in billboard and signs, block skylines and provide ready landmarks with only slight modifications to reflect the local culture.

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We the people of the United States of America are exporters of image. It is crucial to our identity. Even in radical countercultural circles, we know ourselves best when bemoaning uniquely horrific corporate American crassness—Rain Forest denizens watching Bay Watch, General Foods pimping mac and cheese to Latin American beans-and-rice connoisseurs, Kate Moss pushing voluntary starvation, even dot.com anti-advertising advertising.

So it’s jarring when some foreigner socks us in our cultural gut by turning our primary civic language against us. United Colors of Benetton—the Italian clothing company—has, for the last decade, been doing just that. Oliviero Toscani, the company’s advertising director and publicist, has brought to our billboards multicolored copulating horses, Ronald Reagan in the advanced stages of AIDS, a crucified Jesus with "Do You Play Alone?" stamped across the width. These thumb-waves at our prudish American sensibilities have incensed the Catholic League, AIDS activists, and people of good taste, most of whom have never seen (let alone purchased) a Benetton sweater or suit.

Benetton’s latest import is "We, On Death Row," a $15 million dollar print and billboard campaign. The centerpiece, a 96-page outsert bound with the February 2000 issue of Tina Brown’s Talk magazine (of which Toscani is creative director), profiles 25 men and one woman living on death row in the United States.

The piece is evocative, well-written, and cleanly designed—and 100 percent celebrity-free. Full-page photos accompany excerpts from interviews conducted by journalist Ken Shulman, who asked inmates about their families, prison food, what they dream, and what they miss. The participants were not permitted to discuss the details of their crimes. Instead they talk about the lack of adequate attention given to kids in trouble, the ineffectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent, the need for time and space to assess life and turn around. Every four or five pages, a single quote is spread—such as "Each day in my cell I paint butterflies"—with the kelly green "United Colors of Benetton" logo stamped below.

The campaign has incensed victims’ rights groups who argue that the omission of crime details—particularly information about the victims—generates false sympathy, and that Benetton is exploiting their loss to sell sweaters. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon is suing Benetton for fraud, alleging that the company’s representatives deliberately misled prison officials about the purpose of their project. "Death row is not for sale," Nixon told the LA Times.

It has also evoked reaction from the ad world itself. Commentators in Advertising Weekly and on NPR’s "Marketplace" criticized Benetton for crossing the line of insensitivity in using death to get attention.

We like our advertisers to limit their crassness to sex and cars, not to extend their grasp to social ills. Politicians, activists, preachers, and motivational speakers use images of death or miscarried justice to sell visions, platforms, and books. We count on them to do so. But with corporations fast becoming international policy shapers, why not use that power to spark debate on social issues? Toscani wrote, "Shocking violence in the news is normal. But when you take the same photo out of the news and put a Benetton logo on it, people pause and reflect on their position on the problem. When they can’t come to terms with it, they get mad at us."

This campaign shoves in our faces pictures of ourselves we’d rather not see. The rest of the world is incrementally recognizing that the death penalty is barbaric and antiquated. Even as Illinois Gov. George Ryan has ordered a moratorium on the death penalty because of its record of sentencing innocent people to die, we stand a good chance of electing George W. Bush—whose execution record is for him a point of great pride—as our next president.

Toscani is first and foremost a publicist. He stretches the bounds of traditional advertising, using shock value to throw us off balance, causing us to rethink what appalls us and what we have grown to accept. Benetton’s bottom line will always be sales. But in the meantime, they have shaken us where we need to be shaken, turning us on our heads and exposing our acceptance of the unacceptable.

KARI JO VERHULST is marketing manager at Sojourners.

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