Benetton Settles Death-Row Ad Suit

Italian clothier Benetton will write letters of apology and donate money to a victims-compensation fund in a settlement with Missouri over an ad campaign that featured death-row inmates.

Attorney General Jay Nixon said the company will send apologies to four Missouri families whose relatives were killed by the inmates featured in the company’s “We on Death Row” advertising campaign. Benetton also will donate $50,000 to the Missouri Crime Victims Compensation Fund and immediately stop using the four Missouri inmates on the company’s Web site.

“This is an appropriate resolution to a situation that caused renewed emotional pain for those who lost their loved ones to these four murderers,” Nixon added.

Barry A. Short, a St. Louis attorney representing Benetton, said the company was relieved that the issue had been settled. “Obviously, Benetton views this lawsuit without merit and still does, but agrees with Attorney General Nixon that this is an appropriate resolution to the matter,” Short added.

The “We on Death Row” project included a 96-page magazine supplement published last year and a photo feature on the company’s Web site. It was based on interviews with 26 condemned inmates from six states, including the four from Missouri. Death-row inmates also were interviewed in Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky and Oregon.

One of the four, Jerome Mallet of St. Louis, murdered Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper James Froemsdorf in March 1985. He is scheduled to be executed July 11. Execution dates haven’t been set for the other three inmates.

Benetton, an $11 billion family-owned company, is known for its provocative ads aimed at sparking awareness of controversial social issues. Past campaigns have shown two models attired as a priest and nun kissing, a dying AIDS patient and bloody victims of war.

At the time of the campaign, the company said the photographs “aim at giving back a human face to the prisoners on death row.”

Nixon filed the lawsuit in February 2000 against Benetton and four individuals who worked on the project, alleging that they misrepresented the purpose of the interviews with the inmates and made false claims to state officials in gaining access to the prison. The suit alleged that company representatives pretended to be part of a Newsweek magazine project.

Most states condemned the campaign, and Sears, Roebuck & Co. responded by immediately halting sales of apparel designed by Benetton USA Corp. The move came after protests from victims-rights groups and threats of a boycott.

Copyright (c) 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.