“We did not create our advertisements in order to provoke, but to make people talk, to develop citizen consciousness,” Luciano Benetton assures us. Whether or not they began in this way, many Benetton advertisement campaigns have ended with controversy. Most recently, in the Autumn of 2011, with the launch of the unHate campaign, some of the photographs in the series wouldn’t see a full day on the billboards. It is by this light — the light of controversy — that I consider each advert. It must be acknowledged that such campaigns do wonders for the company: a political alignment with consumers is much stronger than a strictly aesthetic one, after all. Nevertheless, given that such projects have enormous visibility, there is a logic in the highly politicised propaganda. I believe this is the classic win-win situation. We shouldn’t whine about that.
This one’s for the fridge
This 1991 ad is much more than meets the eye. Sure, there’s the typical message of unity: one figure from three historically conflicting continents all being warmed by a single blanket. Looking closer at the image, you see that the women on either end of the child have their hands clasped together (which would probably explain the colours used for the blanket) and suddenly the image becomes a family portrait. The power of this advert is its subtlety and refusal to submit to any homosexual stereotypes or restrictions in terms of interracial love or the issue of adopting.
Whoa, whoa, what’s important!
Benetton takes on a different issue in 1997, fighting world hunger through its support of the World Food Programme (WFP). Portrayed above is the most startling of the images; it depicts, in an entirely unique way, how hunger can consume the body (no starving bodies here, just spectacular symbolism). I would have put this ad higher up on the top ten if it weren’t for the naturally no-brainer nature of the subject being tackled. World hunger is understood by all to be a grave issue — even if it doesn’t figure in the everyday life of most that would come by glossy magazine advertisements. Benetton will prove itself to be capable of much greater controversy!
Ebony & Ivory
Here’s an image to be studied. Luciano Benetton, the hero of this list one might say, meets a photographer, Oliviero Toscano, in 1982 who shows him that a focus of message over product could be more effective. In that year, Toscano creates the above work.Vaguely Blakean in its Romanticism, two innocent young girls — one white, one black — embrace one another. But are they really as innocent as each other? There seems to be an imbalance. The girl on the left has the hair and cheeks of a cherub, of an angel. The other girl has her hair spiked up like devil horns and resists a smile. Although attempting a “uniting” effect, the ad fails in its racist shortcomings, separating colors into good and evil.
Sentenced without words
Nobody saw this one coming. 1996 marks a challenge to capital punishment, a subject much more contestable than any we’ve seen to date. The idea of using convicted criminals as models for a high-end fashion label isn’t the first to come up at a board meeting. Essentially, this is yet another outlet for their pro-life message: suffer at all costs, just don’t do the wrong thing by taking life away. While consistent, there is a bizarre leaning towards a defence of violence (although involuntary) which weakens the effectiveness yet raises the bar of controversy.
What’s colorful, mass-produced, and fun? It was only a matter of time before Benetton saw the link between their line of clothing and condoms. Influenced by the Olympics in Barcelona the preceding year, the 1993 ads brought color to the AIDS pandemic. This was just over a decade after the formal recognition of the disease, when it was still charged with ideas that it was cleansing society of the undesirables. Benetton bravely uses HIV positivity to create lively, sexy images — a perspective very unlike traditional representations of AIDS as death itself. As we will shortly see, they will play on this trope more controversially.