United Colours Of Benetton Essay Research Paper

United Colours Of Benetton Essay, Research Paper


Over the years, advertising has become the single largest source of visual imagery in our society. No matter where we look, we see advertisements trying to sell us everything from food to cars. We often see images of beautiful people enticing us to spend our money on products we think we need, hoping that by purchasing the product we too will reap the benefits of owning it. Not long ago however, an Italian clothing designer named Luciano Benetton changed the face of advertising forever by employing Oliviero Toscani as chief of advertising at Benetton. Instead of showing Benetton s products in its advertisements, they have chosen to show images related to important world issues in an apparent attempt to raise awareness. In this essay, I shall discuss the social and cultural implications of Benetton s advertisements to discover why they have become so criticised and whether or not they are beneficial to society today.

It was in 1989 that Benetton became the first company to eliminate pictures of its products from its advertisements. In their place, Benetton uses powerful images of AIDS victims, racism, war and now even death row inmates. In the same year, the trademark United Colours of Benetton was officially adopted. The campaign trademark and philosophy is the result of the combined efforts of company president Luciano Benetton and photographer Oliviero Toscani.

Benetton and Toscani s personal ideas and perspectives on advertising have since become very similar with Benetton s corporate image. Toscani is in fact only interested in the world and people. Toscani, who has a long history in dealing with art, was given total control over Benetton s advertisements. His decision to completely remove the product from the advertisements stems directly from his beliefs about the problems of contemporary advertising. He believes that the advertising industry has corrupted society . However, despite claims from both men that profit was never a motive and raising social conscience is their single goal, Benetton advertisements have been widely criticised and banned world-wide. The following reports discuss three of Benetton s main advertisement campaigns: AIDS, race and death row.

It may be difficult for us to understand the lack of understanding of AIDS in the past but our society was not always as informed as today. When the Benetton AIDS campaign began in 1991, this was during the AIDS crisis when people were not as informed about the causes or transmission of the disease. At times in the past, people with AIDS were seen as outcasts. At one point, the government had even considered mass quarantine of AIDS infected patients. When discussing these advertisements, we must first realise what the situation was like when they were presented to the world.

One advertisement is a photo of a man named David Kirby who at the time was dying of AIDS. The image first ran as a photo in Life magazine where it received mass praise and critical acclaim. Kirby s family then gave Benetton permission to use the picture in their advertisements in hopes that it would raise attention of the AIDS epidemic. However, when Benetton published the advertisement, it was criticised as exploitation of the victim as a way to gain brand recognition and sell more clothes. Magazine publishers and Britain s Advertising Standards Authority have even called the advertisement obscene , disgusting and a despicable exploitation of a tragic situation . It would seem as though even when choosing a critically acclaimed photo, Benetton can do no good in the eyes of the media.

Another advertisement is a photo of virals of blood like those used in the AIDS testing process. Names of famous world leaders are shown on the virals to show that no one is immune to the AIDS virus. At that time, AIDS was widely thought to be transmitted only between gay men and drug users. Benetton attempted to make the problem seem more personal, hoping that if people realised that they too were susceptible to the AIDS virus, they might be more likely to help the problem.

Benetton s condom advertisements, unlike the other AIDS advertisements, provide a solution for the problem shown. Benetton knew tat condoms are an effective way to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus, which is commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse. These advertisements are an attempt to bring an idea to light that people will be more likely to use condoms. Before we judge Benetton for exploiting victims and showing images that we would prefer not to see, we must first realise that these advertisements were not only shown in the U.S.A and the UK. In other countries, AIDS was, and still is, a much worse problem. In third world countries especially, little is known about the AIDS disease. We cannot condemn Benetton for telling us something we already know, but instead embrace what they are saying in hopes that it will help other people.

No one can dispute that racism still exists throughout the entire world. Even today, well after the civil rights movement, cultural bias, hatred and discrimination are major problems and issues for debate. Benetton uses its advertisements in an attempt to raise our awareness of a problem that would generally not be discussed in advertising. The main theme that spreads through all of Benetton s race awareness advertisements is that underneath our skin we are all the same.

One advertisement is of three hearts with the words white, black and yellow written across them. Posters showing this advertisement have been condemned for causing widespread and serious offence. It has been criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority, who have asked Benetton to take the posters down world-wide. I think that this advertisement, although it has a good message, may have been inappropriate because of the images of what could be human hearts. Benetton has never even told the public whether or not human hearts were used.

Another advertisement is that of a black horse mounting a white horse. Poster critics who claim that it is obscene also have rejected this advertisement. Although the Advertising Standards Authority have received many complaints and requests to ban the advertisement, Benetton did not want to comply, defending the advertisement by saying What is natural is never vulgar.

Another advertisement is that of a white infant suckling at a black woman s breast. Although this advertisement has won artistic awards in Europe, it was considered too controversial for publication in the U.S.A. Many believed that given the history of slavery in the U.S.A, people would see the black woman not as the child s mother but as a nanny or nursemaid whose job it was to take care of the white child. International corporations such as Benetton must be careful to take into consideration the historical context of each country in which they choose to place the advertisement.

Capital punishment has also become a very controversial issue in our society. Many feel that death is the only suitable form of justice for certain crimes while others argue that any form of capital punishment is inhumane and unconstitutional. Benetton has chosen this as the subject of one of its advertising campaigns. Two years were spent by Toscani, interviewing and photographing prisoners in various U.S penitentiaries. In the end, a 96 page report was made including the photos and excerpts from the interviews with three dozen inmates. The interviews have been called pitiful , chilling , and in the case of Leroy Orange, shocking . In the interview with Orange, he claims that he was beaten and tortured into giving a police confession. Although one involved police officer was fired, Orange has never been retried. Others have compared interviews to those of Playboy Playmates, talking about their turn ons and turn offs and asking questions such as, Do you dream at night? and, Can you remember a time when you didn t have peace in your heart? This insert may provide interesting information about the inmates and the faults and/or benefits of capital punishment but the commonly seen print advertisements contain only small photographs of the inmates and provide little or no information to the viewer. There is no discussion of the trial or crime. The viewer is left with no clear impression of Benetton s view on the subject of capital punishment and nothing with which to evaluate guilt, innocence, or remorse of the condemned. Perhaps, Benetton is not attempting to resolve any of the issues but instead simply showing the humanity of those sentenced to death. Toscani has said, We will look back at this kind of justice one day and we will consider ourselves very primitive. Maybe, after essentially coming face to face with the prisoners, we would be less likely to think of them as beasts.

Even in my short life, I have become accustomed to seeing graphic images from many different sources: movies, television, the internet and even newspapers. We seem to pride ourselves in our freedom to express ourselves however we want. We also take pride in our level of tolerance of all cultures and our awareness of world issues. This is why I am very surprised at the number of bans and criticisms Benetton have faced over its advertisement campaigns in the U.S.A. It seems strange to me that in this day and age, that Benetton s advertisements could cause such a stir.

I believe that Benetton s advertisements are criticised because they are associated with merchandising. Benetton is not in the business of raising social conscience; it is selling clothing. This devalues whatever message any advertisement ever tries to tell us because it is associated with money. I believe that Benetton tries to create a bridge between art and advertising. Our society however, is not used to this strange combination. Advertising is seen as a fantasy world and Benetton s advertisements show very real problems.

The problem that this brings up is what should advertisers do? They are forced to either simply advertise their product traditionally or to be criticised heavily as Benetton has been. If Benetton actually does want to make the world a better place by raising awareness of world issues, how are they to prove it? If the attention of the public is Benetton s sole purpose, then they need not include their logo on the images. What would be left would be a public service announcement. Benetton advertisements provide no means by which the consumer can help the problem. Another problem that would arise if Benetton did choose to remove their logo is how would they fund the campaigns? This leaves two possible solutions. Benetton could donate money to existing organisations that fight the problems that Benetton has addressed or they could choose to do what they have done; create their own images with private funds generated by using these images as advertisements.

The only problem with this solution is the lack of actual help that it can do. Nowhere in any of Benetton s advertisements are there phone numbers to call or organisations to contact about how to actually help fight the problem addressed. For example, in the death row campaign we simply see the face of the man to be put to death with no information of the crime, trial, or possible innocence of the accused. In addition to the problem of the lack of information, one must ask the question of whether or not the issues Benetton shows are even worth showing. The only really controversial issue that they have ever tackled is that of the death penalty and here they have conveniently left out an opinion. It would seem as if Benetton chooses not to take a strong stance on controversial issues in order not to alienate any potential customers.

This bring up another interesting point. By purchasing Benetton products, does the customer feel that he/she has helped the problems that Benetton put in its advertisements? I believe that to come to a conclusion on this issue we must examine just exactly who is Benetton s target audience. In general, Benetton clothing is fairly expensive and their advertisements are run in magazines that are read mostly by people who are well educated and can afford to purchase the products shown. However, we must realise that we are dealing with a new form of advertising, and evaluating it with the old fashioned concept of what advertising should be.

I believe that in our society today, we should try to open our minds to consider the possibility that these advertisements are a real attempt to help the world and not another corporate attempt at consumer manipulation.


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