Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

Should advertising double as policy advocate?
Benetton is at it again. The fashion company is stirring controversy with an ad campaign that’s sure to make even the most liberal among us cringe.
Instead of offering images of a war-torn country, a dying AIDS patient surrounded by his anguished family or a black and a white horse copulating, Benetton’s latest ad effort features portraits of prisoners on death row. Cries of exploitation are sure to follow. Of course, for Benetton, ever the provocateur, that’s the point.
The faces of 27 incarcerated men and one woman, ranging in age from 18 to 60, were photographed in prisons in the United States. The pictures, along with interviews conducted by freelance journalist Ken Shulman, will first appear in this country as a 98-page ad insert titled “We on Death Row” in the February issue of Talk magazine. Six of the portraits will be used in a $20 million print and billboard campaign in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
In one ad, a man named Leroy Orange is bathed in green fluorescent lighting and wears a yellow prison uniform. Type in the lower right corner reveals his location, birthday, crime and sentence: first- degree murder, aggravated arson, four counts. Sentence: death by lethal injection. Stamped across the ad in large, black block type: “Sentenced to Death.”
Oliviero Toscani, the 58-year-old creative director of The Benetton Group, explains, “We wanted to talk about how it feels to be on death row. What do they dream about? What are they afraid of?”
Like Benetton’s previous ad campaigns, which have touched on issues of race, religion, politics and war, the death row campaign, is sure to ignite debate–exactly what Toscani wants. “American culture is taking over everywhere,” he says. “I do mind certain things. This is one of the things that should be discussed.”
It is noteworthy when a company decides to spend its advertising dollars on a cause it believes in rather than showcase the season’s latest fashions.
Benetton’s ad philosophy is rooted in social awareness and change. Toscani says the ad industry does not recognize its power to influence culture for the better. Simply advertising a product, he claims, is a waste of communication.
But does corporate-image advertising that doubles as cause marketing help or hurt the cause? Does it illuminate or trivialize the issue?
Helen Garrett, advertising director of Amnesty International, says, “I am in favor of efforts to raise public awareness and put a face to this difficult human rights issue. … I tip my hat to Benetton for this effort.”
Still, the ads provoke both positive and negative feelings toward the subject.
Placing a volatile issue–and people who kill–at the center of an ad can be a risky strategy. The prisoners smile and scowl. Some seem friendly, others sad, some frightening. Each communicates a feeling of sympathy, hatred or fear. It all depends on the viewers–and the perceptions they carry.
Although, like Toscani, I am opposed to the death penalty, the ads make me uneasy. Seeing the company mantra “United Colors of Benetton” on the photographs does not bother me much. I’m used to seeing it alongside images uncommon to advertising. I’ve seen the ad with the overflowing African refugee boat and the bloody Mafia hit.
But what draws my attention is the URL below the now-familiar green logo. Why? It reminds me of the company’s recent announcement that it will sell its products onthe Internet this year.
When asked what the marketing goals of the campaign are, Toscani says, “It’s got nothing to do with sales. I’ve been working for Benetton since 1982, and it’s grown 20 times bigger, even doing the advertising I do.”
Provocative ad campaigns have built Benetton into one of the world’s most recognizable brands. Its sales pitch cannot be separated from its philanthropy, which can’t help but raise suspicion about its motives.
Although many of the social issues Benetton has publicized in its advertising have been supported by company efforts beyond advertising, a teenager who is unaware of Benetton’s history may think nothing more of the ads than they are just another Diesel-like spoof.
Or, if Toscani is right, the ads may offer just the right stamp of approval a brand-conscious teenager needs in order to ask serious questions, seek answers and inspire change. K
Eleftheria Parpis
Creative Editor, Adweek