United Colors of Controversy: Shock Value in Benetton Advertising Essay Sample
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United Colors of Controversy: Shock Value in Benetton Advertising Essay Sample
It is a common practice of advertiser’s to appeal to the emotions of consumers in order to sell a product. Over decades, advertisements have evolved to a greater focus on social institutions rather then the product itself. Nonetheless, the Benetton retailer distinguishes itself by its utilization of attention grabbing and often times shocking imagery. When flipping through the Benetton catalogue, consumers are hard pressed to find the prices of sweaters or khaki pants. Instead, we see images of a priest nun kissing, a white woman nursing a black baby, and in its latest campaign – death row inmates. Although the Benetton Corporation claims to be promoting social consciousness, its practices evidence profit motivation and extreme consumer manipulation.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of company philosophy in the 21st is the Benetton web site. More and more, internet sites are catching up with print ad counterparts in the use of symbols and images to make the consumer feel good about purchasing a product. Often times, these web sites are intentionally distracting. When visiting nike.com, I was able to design my own sneakers, read profiles of female athletes, make a donation to a Children’s relief fund, and even check the local weather forecast. Although I could do all of these things in my choice amongst thirteen languages, I was unable to find the prices of Nike sneakers. Benetton’s web site, Benetton.com, is likewise functionally distracting when trying to use it for information about Benetton clothing. There is an area where you can browse Benetton’s fall/winter collection, but the clothes are not prominently displayed and no prices are listed. When you click under “sweaters”, for example, a new window is opened with a large image of female wearing an orange turtleneck sweater. However, the viewer can only see the piece of clothing from the neck up.
The more substantive sections of Benetton.com are its image galleries. Benetton’s “Colors 47” magazine features images of psychiatric patients in third world countries under this month’s “Madness” theme. Under the “Who We Are” subsection, there are brief descriptions of company holdings, subsidiaries, financial outlook, and business partnerships. More worthy of note is the “What We Say” section, which opens up a window with the heading, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. Here we can find an anthology of Benetton’s advertising images dating back to 1986. These include photographs of AIDS patients, multi-colored condoms, embryos in test tubes, a slaughtered Bosnian soldier, and an electric chair. All of these images have been used in catalogues, magazines, and billboard ads with the United Colors of Benetton green logo prominently featured. None of these ads feature Benetton clothing. The Benetton Corporation claims that theirs ads have, “International, homogeneous, and universal themes” and that their ads have been, “Not only a means of communication but an expression of our time.” (Gallagher 178).
The creator of many Benetton ad campaigns, including the Death Row feature, is Oliviero Toscani. Toscani says that advertising “needs images that will make people think and discuss”. He claims that Benetton’s advertisements are a Rorschach test that conforms to your expectations. He compares his photographs to Michelangelo’s “Pieta” in “promoting a Jesus who may have not been real”. (Lyman 23). Whether or not one likes Toscani’s images, he has succeeded in provoking debate about the effectiveness of images in social construction (Lyman 24). Critics ask why he does not ask Benetton to donate profits to the causes he features in his photographs, but supporters point out that journalists for the Associated Press do not give royalties to the victims of the calamities they document (Clark 45). This is a faulty argument, given that newspapers are not for profit, whereas Benetton most certainly is securing profit with notorious overpricing clothing.
Adjacent to the vast social commentary on the Benetton web site, is the somewhat careless display of the company’s financial report. The irony of this information being situated a click away from images of poverty sparks suspicion in the validity of Benetton’s claim to moral superiority. Here, Benetton lauds its “Images of Death Row” campaign as being victorious in securing an 8.5% increase in revenue and a 12% net increase in profit from clothing sales in the last fiscal year. Nowhere in this report is it mentioned whether the company engaged in any philanthropic activity.
What did materialize in the past year for Benetton were accusations that the company engaged in illegal child labor in Turkey, Romania, and Madagascar. The Netherlands’ Clean Clothes Campaign documented violations of worker’s rights, including sexual harassment and forced overtime. This agency insisted that Benetton improve working conditions and assist children released from employment. To avoid international scrutiny, Benetton was forced to sign a code of conduct recognizing the international standard for fair labor practices and agree to independent monitoring of its clothing production plants (Ehrenreich 22). This revelation is startling, given that Benetton previously used a photograph of child brick-layers in Thailand allegedly to shed light of the issue of child labor. This raises the question of whether Benetton is trying to help the people in their ads, or exploit them further.
Due to its intentional use of shock imagery in advertising, Benetton is no stranger to protest and controversy. It’s reasonable to hypothesize that the use of these poignant, graphic, and sometimes disturbing photographs is designed to appeal to the type of consumer Benetton feels is most lucrative. It appears as though they are targeting a chic, educated “yuppie” type of consumer, excluding as outsiders those who find their advertising vulgar or who do not understand the social commentary behind the advertisements.
The campaign entitled, “We, on Death Row” stirred an especially emotional debate by featuring a supplementary catalog including photographs and biographies of twenty-six death row inmates. The ads ran in magazines and on billboards, where the inmates’ views on life and their impending punishment are displayed next to their photograph. Benetton describes this campaign as “giving back a human face to those on death row” (Davis 9). Benetton is headquartered in Italy, where not only is the death penalty not a part of the penal system, but it is especially abhorred. Oliviero Toscani claims his intention to be drawing attention to the use of capital punishment in the United States (Lyman 23).
This approach to advertising was largely admonished in the United States. Benetton has been sued by the state of Missouri for misrepresenting themselves when attempting to interview four death row inmates. Sears dropped Benetton merchandise from its inventory in response to protest from victim’s families and disgusted customers (Ehrenreich 24). Toscani resigned from the company in March of 2000, after nearly eighteen years of service (Lyman 24). It was recognizable that Toscani’s previous ads had little to do with Benetton clothing; it used shock for the sake of drawing attention to the company logo. However, the semiotics of the death row campaign created too many notable “outsiders”, namely the victims of the inmates’ brutal crimes.
The “We, on Death Row” campaign distinguishes itself from previous Benetton commentaries in that the individuals depicted are largely despised “social parasites”, gaining sympathy from only the most die-hard opponents to capital punishment. Even amongst this audience, there is little to no compassion for the condemned as an individual, only an ethical dislike for the practice of capital punishment. The previous initiatives represented individuals whom we can feel sorry for: AIDS victims, starving children, and oppressed minorities. Even more controversial issues, such as contraception, garner more supporters than criminals on death row. By attacking the death penalty, Benetton alienated its American consumer base.
The inmates selected for the feature were not even those whose guilt was ambiguous to the public. One featured inmate was Leroy Orange, who confessed to torturing and killing a police officer (Clark 44). Toscani aims at shedding light on the human expenditure of capital punishment, but places a high risk of being accused of “using the blood of murder victims to promote its commodity”, according to Justice for All president Diane Clements. Victim’s rights groups have a valid claim that Benetton is only glamorizing murders for profit. The inmates’ stories are romanticized as chilling memoirs of a risky lifestyle. One gets caught up in the dramatic uncertainty of their fate as they await the countdown to their execution amidst appeals and publicity. Through sporadic glimpses into their mysterious existence in a forbidden place, these inmates achieve a status of immortality. This potential to make these criminals into icons, political martyrs and cult
heroes, is exactly what provoked the American public to draw the line.
The glamorization argument has merit in that no where amongst the profiles of the twenty-six convicted murderers is there any mention of the fifty-five victims of their crimes. A Justice for All editorial points out that, “While Benetton tries to improve their poor market share in the US, they are causing unnecessary pain and distress to the families of the innocent people killed by the men the campaign intends to ‘humanize’.” Benetton is still fairing well despite critics, with over 7,000 retail stores in 120 countries; they garnered approximately $2 billion in sales last year (Ehrenreich 20-21).
Last year, Merrill Lynch gave long-term support to Benetton’s shares on the New York Stock Exchange. The investment firm Schroder Solomon Smith Barney lent its support to Benetton’s rigorous growth initiative, which includes the opening of over 100 new stores worldwide (Gallagher 178). None of these profits were offered to the victim’s families or to support the inmate through rehabilitation or legal counsel. Toscani’s defense primarily consists of the success his advertisements have had in increasing sales, not in promoting humanitarian relief (Lyman 24). Toscani may care about the condemned by taking the time show their face to the world, but his disdain for the practice might be catapulted by a wholehearted effort to create social change.
In placing myself in the shoes of a potential Benetton consumer, I have a stated bias as being against capital punishment. However, my affiliation with Benetton and the nature of its advertisements goes no further. Behind the worn faces of the death row inmates lies the fundamental message of the ad – the easiest way to fight capital punishment is buying Benetton clothing. This may sound preposterous, but with the company doing little else besides making outcast the centerfolds of catalogues, this conclusion is reasonable. The ads even contain quotes from the Pope and the Dalai Lama against the execution of criminals. So it may be said that by buying Benetton merchandise, you are supporting these figures of reverence. It is true that these leaders are diametrically opposed to capital punishment, but they are misrepresented in a Benetton advertisement.
When looking through the photographs branded with the Benetton logo, one digs for an element of sincerity. One Benetton representative said in an Associate Press article that the goal is not to merely be “a good corporate citizen”, it’s to sell merchandise (Ehrenreich 25). The Benetton campaign is a classic example of what is known in the marketing business as “branding”: attaching to one’s product a sensibility that, it is hoped, consumers will want to acquire for themselves (Davis 9). Nike isn’t just sneakers, it represents youth and athleticism. Marlboro likewise transcends selling cigarettes, and represents a stereotype of masculinity. Mercedes-Benz is a symbol of wealth and class. Benetton has already situated itself at the perimeter of the forbidden, which has already been its major source of notoriety.
One of the company’s past campaigns celebrated interracial love; another featured a man dying of AIDS. The Benetton brand name represents forbidden love, a stigmatized disease, and now state executions. Just like smoking Marlboro cigarettes denotates certain qualities of masculinity, wearing a Benetton t-shirt is supposed to say to others that you are socially consciensious. This daring individual is exactly who will buy Benetton clothes. Benetton seeks to outrage and captivate, those who are turned away are dubbed as being conservative and unsophisticated.
Regardless of controversy, shocking use of photography has earned Benetton its fame. It is also reasonable to deduce that this has come at little net loss to the public. This renegade form of art in advertising began with AIDS victims and perpetuates at present. These advertisements may have indeed sparked social awareness, particularly towards the forgotten victims of malnutrition and sexism. The Benetton campaign has broken new political ground. Toscani produced one of the first commercial images of a black African to ever appear in apartheid South Africa. In Paris, Toscani and Benetton sponsored an ACT UP demonstration in the Place de la Concorde where a huge condom was unrolled on the square’s phallic obelisk (Lyman 23-24). The current issue of Colors has an index of wars being fought around the world and an extensive directory of relief organizations and embassy addresses. An earlier issue delivered explicit information on AIDS and how to prevent infection, all in a format and location appealing and accessible to those at higher risk.
By confronting the public with the shocking face of reality, his ads stir emotions of both anger and compassion. They represent a paradigm shift to using altruism to identify a product with a humanitarian cause. The paradigm of selling body image has been long since employed in the catalogues of Benetton’s major competitors: Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew and American Eagle. Benetton images fit within the cycle of picturing their models in action and needing little textual supplements. The models in this paradigm often represent an unattainable social status comprised of physical attractiveness, unlimited spending power, and are situated in exotic locations. However, Benetton centerfolds are not traditional models, they suffer from our most notorious social ills. They are not representative of the class status that can afford Benetton clothing. These figures are meant to shock and upset the viewer. Those who find this imaging appealing are in what Stuart Hall describes as, “a social group who cluster together and derive solidarity from the fact that they are in opposition to the status quo.” (Hall 80). Social conformists are meant to be excluded from understanding the message.
O’Barr writes that the value system in the discourse of advertising is twofold. The first messages channeled tell us what to buy and the second tells us how to live our lives (O’Barr 205). Benetton projects this value system, but distinguishes itself by reversing the order of importance by sending social messages first in order to grab the viewer’s attention and then try to sell the product. Some critics laud this revolutionary approach; others say it crosses the line of decency. Either way, the approach has worked for Benetton world wide. In an interview with Eric Lyman, Oliviero Toscani asks the rhetorical question, “How can I feel regret toward something that increased the visibility of an important topic, of the company involved and of myself?” (Lyman 23). Indeed, the creative use of controversial subject matter with rewarding results is commendable. However, the United Colors of Benetton may be a more credible evaluator of societal evils if they were willing to play a part in releasing their subject matter from oppression.
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Davis, Charles. “A killer campaign.” Columbia Journalism. v.39, n.5. p.9
Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Dirty Laundry: Benetton’s ‘We, on Death Row’ Campaign.”
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Gallagher, Leigh. “About Face.” Forbes. March 19, 2001, p.178
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