By Annette Gallagher Weisman
Quarterly West Issue # 39

A humorous article in the “About Men” column in the (The New York Times Sunday Magazine – September 13, 1992) described how John Cadley, a copywriter, came up with an idea for an advertising campaign about a shoe “complete and whole in its shoeness, but still…only a shoe.” He was assured by fellow copywriters that the shoe he held in his hand was not merely a lump of leather but a “footwear statement that can be given a brand personality and positioned in a segmented market niche against a target demographic.” There is, so the article says, “no higher motivation.”

At lunch, a decorative piece of radish reminds Cadley of the tassel on his lowly shoe back at the office. This shoe garnish not only sets it apart from the garden variety, but gives him the hook from which to hang his expensive campaign. His only remaining problem is the client: “He’s old-fashioned. He thinks because he’s paying $5 million a year for his advertising, he should understand it. This antiquated notion must be dealt with. I will assure him that the bizarre, the self-indulgent, the meaningless and the self-consciously hip are what new age communications are all about.”

While you’re mulling over Cadley’s communications criteria, picture this: scene one, two white males pin down a dark-complected man while two other men, viewed at hip level only, stand omniously in the shadows. As the man lies face down on the ground, a reporter shoves a microphone in front of his mouth. In scene two some brightly clothed, Hispanic children are playing in a brick yard. A second look shows that these children are, in fact, child laborers. One might expect to see images like these on television, or perhaps in Life magazine, but no: this is the news of the world according to Benetton.

Advertisements of this kind succeed because of their shock value: the more you look at them, the more shocking they are. These and five more startling photographs are part of Benetton’s 1992 fall campaign. A different image was featured each month in fifteen U.S. magazines ranging from the teen market on up. Scene one appeared in the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine, scene two in the September issue.

At first glance, scene one reminds the viewer of the Rodney King incident, although here the victim is not black. Nor does it look like a typical arrest situation. The men are casually dressed in blue jeans, not in police uniform. There is also a sinister feeling created by the dark background and the ‘in your face’ focus of the camera, which highlights the hostile expressions of the two men bending over the victim, and the reporter who seems oblivious to the man’s discomfort. The man who is pulling the victim’s head back by the hair looks like he’s baring his teeth, and he has a large, odd shaped pattern of scars displayed on his partially bald head, almost as though it were an emblem of some kind. And, if you look closely, a third man is barely visible in the dark background. He is wearing a camouflage shirt, which is casually opened revealing a blue shirt underneath, so we do not get the impression that he is a soldier on duty. Like the third, one can only see the lower torso of the fourth man, who looks like he is wearing a knuckle-duster, and appears to be waiting his turn.

The advertisement in the September issue of Vanity Fair seems, at first, to be a much happier scene, which shows six children playing outdoors. Again, a second look tells a different story. These children are not engaged in play but are laying bricks. A young, shoeless toddler in the foreground looks far from happy, as he strains to lift a large brick waist high. Meanwhile, a girl of about three, and a boy, perhaps five years old, who is holding a wheel barrow with more bricks in it, watch anxiously as the toddler appears to place the heavy brick on a tier in front of him. The three children in the background are a few years older. They seem to be conversing and, judging by the facial expressions of two of them, they are simply doing a day’s work–this is nothing out of the ordinary for them. Their clothing, though colorful, is torn and dirty and the little girl wearing shoes has no laces. The barren land visible behind the brickyard also emphasizes extreme poverty. I think it would be fair to say that in the world of these children, the trademark United Colors of Benetton does not exist. So what’s the point?

The point, of course, is controversy. As the Irish poet, dramatist, and novelist Oscar Wilde once said, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Everyone knows publicity costs money; free publicity is manna from heaven. But is controversy worth its weight in advertising? According to Peter Fressolla, Director of Communications for Benetton in New York, yes it is. In answer to article in The Wall Street Journal (June 24, 1992), in which their controversial advertisements were said to anger retailers and were blamed for declining sales in the U.S., Fressolla said that “We are in a recession and though there were a few disgruntled store owners, Benetton profits have increased yearly in double digits worldwide.” Does that include this year (1992). “Yes, this year.” However, he did say that Benetton is now “repositioning” itself toward a more upscale market; whereas they used to do well in small stores in malls all over the U.S., they are now focusing on larger stores of about 2,500 square feet in selected cities aimed at a different demographic. In fact, says Fresolla, Benetton is doing so well that they are renovating eleven stores like the one in the Houston Galleria, and have opened, or are about to open, fifteen more in places like Washington, D.C., and Aspen, Colorado. They also plan to open a store in Havana, Cuba. It’s hard to imagine Castro trading in his fatigues for the colors of Benetton, but if he’s caught lounging in one of their sweaters it might be time for the fat lady to warm up her vocal cords.

During our phone conversation, Fressolla also said, “If you’re a person to whom $19.99 is a lot of money, Benetton is not trying to attract you. It’s the person who can afford to pay a hundred dollars for a knitwear basic that Benetton would like to attract as its customer.” (Somehow “basic knitwear” doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Fressolla explained further that if you are a Wal-Mart or K-Mart shopper and are not savvy enough to appreciate Benetton’s advertising, then again, you are not the type of customer Benetton wants. He didn’t come right and say that the two were synonymous, but the implication was that one needed to be both hip and well-off to wear Benetton clothing.

However, Teri Agin’s article in The Wall Street Journal, June 24th, 1992, states that the studied audacity (of Benetton’s advertising) fails to mask a fundamental problem. It quotes Kurt Barnard, of Barnhard’s Retail Marketing Report in New York, who says that Benetton’s current array of dressier clothes has been largely ignored by the working woman the company is targeting: “The career woman associates Benetton with one classification–sweater tops.” Another spokesperson for Benetton, Carlo Tunioli, who runs Benetton operations in the U.S., while playing down the importance of this market, conceded that the company’s goal in the U.S. is “to achieve a profitable presence.” However, the article also states that a Merrill Lynch analyst in London, Ciro Tomagnini, who follows Benetton says the company is stuck: “Benetton will remain in the U.S. because it has to,” but adds that he expects continued losses.

Benetton advertisements have evolved over time from happy multi-racial groups which tie into the product somewhat-United Colors of Benetton-to more controversial but still connected ads, such as multi-colored condoms, and non-related themes, like AIDS and racial violence. A Mississippi retailer, Mrs. Oustalet, had sued a company representing Benetton in her area, for what she considers to be “repugnant and immoral” advertising. She says that when the rainbow colored condom ads first appeared in 1991, “I was getting 10 calls a day from people who told me that the company I worked for was sick…and that they’d never shop here.”

Ten members of the public, ranging in age from 13 to 50, were asked at random what they thought of these ads, and though none used the word immoral, they all agreed that they were bizarre. A 13-year-old girl said simply, “weird.” But then she added, “Everyone talks about them in school,” which brings us back to the point of controversy being free publicity, which Oscar Wilde might have advised Benetton is better than none. And, Communications Director Fressolla happily admitted that “I can’t go to a party, or anywhere, without people coming up to me wanting to discuss the ads.”

Returning to Cadley’s tongue in cheek criteria for new age communications, Benetton seems to be the perfect example. Their advertising is considered “bizarre” by many. And, while their ads may not be as self-indulgent as other non-verbal images, like Chanel’s “Egoiste,” Benetton has certainly indulged itself in enough of them. Notwithstanding the wrath of retailers and complaints from the public, Benetton by releasing its 1992 fall campaign, continued with a line of advertising that may contribute to the further decline of its sales in the United States. Benetton also appears to be self-consciously hip by aligning itself with other advertisers, who send messages to the public via images without copy, thereby relieving themselves of any responsibility for how these ads should be interpreted. And finally, though the advertisements can hardly be called meaningless, they are meaningless in relation to the product, which backs up Cadley’s theory that understanding an ad is an “antiquated notion.”

Before one decides that Bentton’s in-house produced advertisements don’t know from nothin’, one should remember that they are directed by the world renowned freelance director, Oliviero Toscani, winner of the coveted Golden Lion award at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival for one of his highly successful television commericals. the lifestyle of this man makes most of those featured in Robin Leach’s ‘Rich and Famous’ look tacky. In between his directorial shoots, Oliviero resides in Tuscany (a good place to live, as anyone who has been there will attest) with his (of course) charming family, where he makes wine and olive oil, and still has time left over to breed Appaloosa horses. And who is paying close attention to the hipness of the world according to Oliviero? why–Ralph Lauren. He who told us it was okay when we took off our western gear to get comfortable with the safari types amidst New England chintz, now has a new series of ads in the New York Times (September 14, 1992) called “Multiculural Urbanland.”

One ad featured in that article shows a beautiful young black girl wearing her hair in corncrows and swathed in tartan, clutching a book bound in African Kente-cloth pattern. She’s cool. And she’s now depicting the fashionable look for Polo for boys . And as Barbara Lippert, a critic for adweek magazine, puts it: “Ralph is leaving the monarchy to embrace the Benetton nation…It’s garmentic determinism. He knows he has to address multi-culturalism, and that the whole idea high-Wasp white-man icon.” Fressola was delighted by this article and said excitedly, “Did you notice they (New York Times)” mention Benetton four times?” Roughly translated, this means trendsetter, free publicity, big bucks; The Times references Benetton being nothing short of PR Nirvana. Mr. Lauren, who has designed clothes and sundry other goods that refined American lifestyles knows a thing or two, therefore, Oliviero/Benetton must know somethin’.

But we’re not only talking about the creation of lifestyles here–we’re talking real life according to Benetton. The 1992 fall campaign depicts photographs of actual events, which is both the sad thing and the good thing about these ads. They certainly are thought provoking. The photograph entitled “Child Labor” was taking by top photojournalist Jean-Pierre Laffont, which shows children working in a brick yard in San Salvador. What is particularly troubling about this ad is that the colorful sweaters these children are wearing makes one think at first glance that they are models. Therefore, this advertisement not only shows how these children are exploited by working in a brick yard, it also gives the impression they are exploited by United Colors of Benetton. The photograph entitled “Interview” was taken by photographer Hans-Jurgen Burkard, he waited ten hours for this arrest to be made, at the invitation of the KGB. Yes, wearing blue jeans and sneakers, these are, in fact, special police units of a KGB squad arresting a “corrupter” linked to the Russian mafia. Hard to believe–even the reporter looks like a caricature of the kind who will stop at nothing to get a story.

So maybe there is merit to these Benetton advertisements, whether one is shocked by them or not. Perhaps it is a good idea to provoke people so that they will discuss issues that should be discussed. Is the media for instance aiding and abetting terrorist activity by the show and tell? Would people of angst and causes bother, if the media were not there to record their deeds and show their banners? Even if all this is done in the not so altruistic motive of promoting a brand name, isn’t it better to remind those who think basking in the sunshine of their family values will protect them from all worries, that there are things to be concerned about, like the state of our world and on-going friction between its multi-colored populace?

Benetton’s official stance on their campaign is that “Benetton’s intention is not to tell people what to think; but rather, by sponsoring images to appear throughout the world, it will encourage the process of thinking and discussion about some important issues, a worthwhile and meaningful exercise in any free and open society.” However, another disgruntled store owner, Deborah Ramano, of Tampa, Florida, has this view: “It is not our function as retailers to raise the consciousness of people. I’ve had long, hard fights with italy over the advertising.”

Regardless of dissent, the Benetton beat goes on. Other images designed to stir up controversy in it’s 1992 fall campaign included: “Bird”, a pathetic victim of an oil spill; “Tribe” a young albino African girl, in the midst of one hundred other black girls, who are said to be virgins streaming to to pay homage to current ruler of the “Zulus”; and “Electric Chair,” taken at the Greenhaven correctional facility in New York State. Though the media only publicizes an execution when there has been some controversy surrounding it, they occur frequently. For instance, in the first six months of 1992 19 executions took place in the United States. Something to think about.

So what happens next? Where will the road to shock value and controversy take us? They say even Madonna is finding it hard to continually upstage herself. What will advertising campaigns come up with in the future? Perhaps, like Madonna’s book Sex, advertising may come packaged sandwiched between steel covers and wrapped in mylar. And in these times of consumer parity, advertisers have to find that target demographic and market niche. And when is a niche a niche? Presumably when advertisements are associated exclusively with the product. In this respect, Benetton has found its niche. And like a dog with a good bone, Benetton is chewing its controversial images for all they’re worth.