“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

Benetton Ad 1991

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 Ad 1997 - Food for life

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

Benetton Ad - 1982

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

Benetton ad 1996

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.



Benetton Ad 1993

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.


  1. I would say that whatever your description of failure or controversy here is, the idea of message above goods and Toscani’s execution of this idea is absolutely amazing and the best we have in our PR’ reality.

    • Any retailer will tell you that it’s about the bottom line. The death penalty inmates helped destroy the brand in the USA – and rightfully so.

  2. You might be interested in this guy called Tibor Kalman who is well known for his work as editor-in-chief of Colors magazine. The image of ‘Baby, we will get through this’ was used as a Benetton campaign on billboards – super-powerful as well. So it was a Benetton campaign that at the same time was selling Colors, and Colors selling Benetton. It was the idea of moving communication onto another level, taking corporate communication onto a meaningful level. (Reference : interview from Designer Fernado Guttierbez)

  3. Many of these ads send a POWERFUL message… Those who are so put out, and offended by them simply need to REPROGRAM their way of thinking, and, by the way, GET A LIFE.

    • Yeah, let’s keep hatred and racism going, right? Who are you? A KKK member, or member of another hater group? When most of the planet is working towards tolerance, there come ignorant people to pull the world backward – into the dark ages.

      • Dark ages never end. Tolerance and intolerance are just ways to organize meals for cannibals, to extract living energy from others and even waste them. Those ways are numerous. Your thoughts of the most of a planet work are really utopian.

  4. Great to see the white European subconsciousness erupting into this ugliness. The racism, the hatred for those cultures and peoples it destroyed through the colonizing process was not enough, so the destruction of the other continues in ads. What f****d up a world we live in.

    • …And you still wondering, oh professor! Huh! Ways of hatred are and have been so versatile even among Africans themselves, as well as among white or any others, racist, chovinistic or any other ways! Would there be any way to eliminate hatred if people can’t even leave each other on their own but, on the contrary, seek ways to devour each other!? The world is lost from its very beginning, all races, all nations, all tribes, all families, all people, all living creatures eventually live in struggle, rivalry, and conflicts, all the elementary particles… Everything that exists. No existence – no hatred. This world is satanic in its inner nature, its a wretched ugly circus, a deceitful playground. Should we think of suicide just on the basis of a racial issue?

  5. During this times as South African the advertiser made the authorities to run for cover as in the 80 s we still had apartheid in RSA so the National Party was in trouble as a result the adverts helped to put pressure on the regime. Viva United Colors of Benetton !!

  6. I am a white looking black european 50 year old female, I have seen it and heard it all when it comes to racism in daily life since I was a child ….it has been so hard being a “race spy” my life long so far. My heart was broken every time someone shared with me his/her disgust and rejection for my brothers and sisters without knowing I was also black. So very sad. Yes racism exists still today.


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