Image Is...Well, Something | Sojourners

Image Is...Well, Something

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.

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 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.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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