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Capital Offense
Benetton ads act as live bait

Are you thinking cell-block chic? Fashion orange jumpsuits to die for? Well, fasten your ammo belts -- this is another bumpy ride from Benetton. You know the drill -- using shocking photos to sell sweaters in the name of "fostering debate."

Oh, for those innocent days of ads showing shots of bloody Mafia hits. Back then, Benetton took baby jabs. Now the Italian fashion retailer has graduated, like a high schooler, to automatic weapons concealed under raincoats; in this case, promoting its aversion to capital punishment in a 96-page supplement and separate print and outdoor ads that feature artful shots and kindly interviews with inmates on death row.

This is potent stuff. First, Missouri's attorney general sued the company for fraud in misrepresenting its employees (as journalists, not ad people) to gain access to four of its state's prison inmates.

And after some of the victims' families picketed a Houston Sears store and Benetton's New York office, Sears, Roebuck and Co., the country's second-largest retailer, announced it was terminating its contract with Benetton and removing Benetton USA clothing from all 400 stores.

Benetton had licensed its name to Sears to sell a new, lower-priced line of clothing (Benetton USA). Sears dropped Benetton even after it was given the chance to preview future ads. Had Sears caved, imaging those meetings:

Benetton representative: "You Americans! You are such Puritans! We are just launching a discussion here!"

Sears rep: "I tell you, I'm more comfortable with the image of the flaming nipple than the AK-47, but I don't think either is right at this time for our shopper."

Much as we think global, there is a cultural sensitivity chasm here. For instance, when Benetton used an image of a black woman breast feeding a white baby in the late 1980s, it was a brilliant visual composition and an attempt to show racial harmony. It was also a shocking export to a country that had abolished slavery only a few generations earlier.

It's this attempted pedagogy, in the form of the slipperiest, most evanescent medium of all, advertising, that's the problem. Some of the ads merely show a portrait of the death row inmate, with his or her name, crime, date of birth and expected method of execution.

That's incendiary because it's so incomplete. We have no information on their guilt or innocence, but meanwhile, the oversized portraits have the same pop iconic power as a saint or a Madonna.

I was already against capital punishment, and I read the 96-page insert looking for some history, context, further insights.

The photographs are great -- as good as any fine art portraits; even the cell-block walls are lit and framed as to be architecturally interesting. With a shaft of light falling across the shoulder of the inmate on the cover, he looks just like an angel. An angel in an institution. Perhaps they should have left it as art, not attempted journalism in the guise of advertising.

The tone of the interviews is similar to Playboy Playmates, talking about their turn-ons and turn-offs. For instance, "Do you dream at night?" The most nauseating was, "Can you remember a time when you didn't have peace in your heart?"

Yes, we may feel sorry for the perpetrator gone wrong. Most of the men seem to have similar backgrounds: alcoholic families, dropping out of school, getting into drugs. In prison, they establish a relationship with God.

And while a few express remorse, most blame parents, media and a flawed judicial system. More disturbing are the omissions: what these people actually did and who suffered.

Of all the provocative, upsetting, controversial Benetton ads, this is the most infuriating. Is this progress?


Barbara Lippert, ADWEEK. March 13, 2000.

Copyright © 2000 Adweek and BPI Communications, Inc.. All rights reserved.