The United Colours of Benetton

© Werner Hammerstingl, 1998

This discussion is about values. Rarely has an advertising campaign gained more attention or provoced more anger than the notorious "AIDS death" picture which Benetton calls "The Family". ACTUP called it offensive and exploitative and protested by staging mock "die-ins" outside Benetton stores.

Beginning in 1991, Benetton attached it's company logo to otherwise pristine pictures of 'Life Today'. There was no other byline, no product per-se, just a very carefully selected image, often of something with resonance in the public psyche such as images of human carnage and catastrophe - and a logo. That was the ad. Clearly they expected to gain some promotional benefit from this. They did. The upset and anger over these ads pushed them into high level recognition. The irony was that the public which complained about these ads created a huge controversy which then created an equally huge amount of free publicity for Benetton. (The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Oskar Wilde).

Of course, Benetton were seeking to gain commercial advantages from the display, often on giant outdoor billboards, of these images of war and murder and death. They are no different from a newspaper or the TV news in this respect. They are also no different from artists who seek to advance their careers with art that addresses issues such as AIDS and war. Arguably one cannot convict Benetton of any moral wrong of which politically engaged artists and the mass-media in general are not equally guilty.

Benetton clearly have touched a raw nerve with these campaigns, but in a world where Joel Peter Witkin, Andres Serano, Robert Mapplethorpe and many others, especially war-photographers, have transgressed taboo in the name of art, or the public right to know, cannot commerce engage with similar topics?

This is the debate. What is your response?

A brief outline of the campaigns and related activities:

'Objectification and fragmentations' 1984-89

The 1984 campaign marked a shift in Benetton s advertising strategy; until then, all the company 's marketing had focused on the products themselves. However, in 1984 a new communication strategy was set out called 'All the Colors of the World' The 1985 campaign took a similar approach. Here, national caricatures, complete with flags, are used to signify cultural diversity. Pushing further the 'All the Colors of the World', Benetton adopted the United Colors of Benetton' slogan. The 1986 campaign extends the play on national caricatures and incorporates the image of the globe. More multi-racial and international images are sought and obtained, ".. the selection of models having very accentuated ethnic traits and the names written in their own language", according to the press release of 1986.

'Racialisation and ambiguity' 1989-91

In 1989, the 'United Colors' campaign embarked on a radical change in approach, from the fragmented representations of cultural difference to the stark presentation of racial oppositions. It was at this point that Benetton's approach received wide publicity and scrutiny . The campaign took on a variety of forms. Some of the images offered black and white animals sitting side by side. In one, a black cat is presented sitting next to a white cat; in another, a black sheep is shown kissing a White Wolf. During this phase, Toscani created racial archetypes in order to espouse a saccharin message of multi racial transcendence.

1990 While provoking controversy, Benetton's products continued to sell, and the turnover rose 24 per cent to 2,060 billion lire in 1990.

'Pseudo-journalism' 1991-97

Between 1984 and 1991, Toscani created his "own reality" within the manifestly artificial context of the photographic studio. However, in 1991 we saw a departure from this approach. During the Gulf War, a picture was used of a graveyard over which was superimposed the 'United Colors' emblem. The image of White crosses was seen to be too provocative in the political climate of that time. with the exception of one Star of David, the graves were entirely marked with Christian crosses. Benetton proclaimed the ad as an antiwar statement, stating in the press release "Human beings of different races and religions die for common ideals or opposing causes".

In 1992, Benetton ads made a final break with traditional advertising genres through incorporating images from photo documentary and news media. The artifice of the studio photograph was traded for the hyper reality of the news shot, an attempt to dispel accusations of misrepresentation which had vexed the 'United Colors' campaigns.

"This year we have chosen to use real photographs from real Life to avoid being accused of speculation and of staging reality". Previously, Toscani had been content to present idealist images in a suggestive way, of which the multi-coloured condom ad is a good example. However, there is a clear connection between the condom ad and the image of David Kirby, a dying AIDS victim gasping for life, surrounded by his family. All the utopian symbols are stripped away and we are confronted with the raw and tragic reality of an AIDS death. In addition to the dying AIDS patient, the campaign included a picture of a burning car in an Italian street, and the shrouded body of a bloody corpse after a Mafia killing.

Also included were photographs of poor black people scrambling in a waste lorry, an Asian couple wading through a flood, and an African soldier holding a human femur behind his back with a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder.

In 1992 There is popular uproar over the 1992 campaign. Is not just about the content of the images but a struggle over form. The campaign is perceived to undermine the cultural codes which privilege the photo documentary as a believable image of reality in western culture. Benetton has taken its move into the realm of news to incredible Lengths, including the publication of their own newspaper/magazine called 'Colors'. It is scheduled to come out every half-year like the campaigns, but without direct links to them. Oliviero Toscalai is Colors' Editor-in-Chief, and the editorial line an extension of Benetton's 'United Colors' philosophy.

1995 Benetton has 7000 independently owned shops in over 110 countries

1996 Benetton has created the official image of the world food summit (a picture of a wooden spoon). Benetton sponsors the "Unite to fight Aids" campaign.

1997 The Dec'96/Jan 97 Colours publication "Shopping for the body" distances it's direct links with Benetton (with the exception of a single ad for sun glasses"

1998 Benetton's website has been inactive for about two years with the last entry dated October 3, 1996

1998 A new website with the Benetton .com tag is launched