The United Colors of Benneton Case Study

The United Colors of Benetton Case

Study Exhibit 2 in the case, some of the ads score high on ‘liking’ while others are clearly ‘disliked.’  What is it in the ads which makes for this?

March 1985: The United Colors of Benetton campaign was overall liked.  A picture of world peace with a multi-racial group of children promises a better tomorrow.  Children growing up in an environment where they see lots of different colors and get to understand that just because people look different on the outside does not mean one is better than another. It’s a really nice campaign.  It’s hard to think of who this 21-23% of the surveyed 18-34 year olds might be.

Sept/Oct 1989: The racial equality campaign.  This was the year Benetton moved their advertising in house, dropped their products, slogans, and signature knot in favor of the green square.  The ads in this cycle, a black woman nursing a white baby was well-received in Europe (won 5 awards) but in the US was seen as possibly a throwback to slavery when black women were employed as wet nurses for white infants, sometimes to the detriment of their own offspring.  The British ad of a black hand and a white hand handcuffed together didn’t seem offensive to me, but some in the UK took it to be a white officer arresting a black man Personally, I thought it was a peaceful image.  There is no stress in the hands or in the chain, it’s a sentiment of ‘we’re all here together whether we like it or not so let’s choose to get along.’ That’s what I read.

I like that the surveyors expanded their question base for the 1989 tests.  They included a wider range of ages and asked about income.  They also acknowledged the tiny percent of the sample who were either confused by or indifferent to the ads. These racial equality ads were better received by women than men, particularly those between the ages of 18-34 with 83%.  Past that, approval drops to 75%.  It is interesting that a full 25% of the higher age group (35-55) disliked the racial equality ads. These people would have been right in the middle of the European civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, so this could potentially be some holdover from those days.
Those with higher income liked the ads (81%)– why is this?  Perhaps access to higher education or more extensive travel expanded the horizons of these people, making them more open to the idea of racial equality.

Sept/Oct 1991: The social issues campaign.  This moved beyond the racism issue into the topic of war, STD/s, the myth of overpopulation, and finally into the most controversial territory of a priest and nun kissing, then Giusy, a screaming newborn baby with her umbilical cord still attached.

This mass of ads stirred quite a bit of trouble with consumers.  The first sample, taken in September, showed that the overwhelming majority of men and women (64% and 69% respectively) did not like the ads that month, namely the Angel & Devil and Priest & Nun ads.  While both tried to strip away the ability of the public to ignore the harsh reality of racism, that those with darker colored skin are often viewed as evil (devil horns on the black child, the priest clad in black) and lighter skin are viewed as good (golden curly hair on the white child, nun clad all in white), people took the ads as Benetton depicting reality, i.e that white is good, black is evil.  Also, for those of the Christian faith, the depiction of two of the noblest characters in Christianity, men and women who have dedicated their lives to the service of God are seen breaking solemn vows and interacting with one another in an intimate way, this ad is very offensive.

The second sampling, taken in October of 1991, showed more acceptance.  In this sample, 60% of men and 58% of women liked the campaign.  It was most accepted among the 18-24 year old group (65% acceptance) but the largest group of dislikes came from the 35-55 year olds.   But which campaigns were the subject of this group?  The Giusy ad was banned in France, Germany, and Ireland, with only a little acceptance in the US.  As Ex.2 October 1991 sample was focused on France, they would not have been familiar with the Giusy ad, or if they were, it would have been only briefly.  I am in agreement with the writer from L’Unita who wrote, “We should ask ourselves the question of why such a natural, vital and basic image as that of a baby being born, offends the public.  Every day we are confronted with pictures of death, often meaningless, and we put up with them in silence…. Yet we are afraid to see an image of life.” (L’Unita, 10/9/91)

Sept 1993: The HIV-Positive Campaign. After a decent reception by the public with the Fall 1991 campaign, Benetton found itself back in hot water with its HIV-positive campaign which depicted three stark photographs showing an arm, buttock, and crotch, each branded with the words ‘HIV Positive.’  My first reaction to seeing the image was that the ‘brand’ is more of a ‘stamp.’  I was ready for some seared flesh and red-hot permanent marks, but I see a purplish stamp on each of these areas.  Benetton’s explanation, that the photos refer to the three main avenues for infection as well as the ostracism of AIDS victims, seemed legitimate to me.  The public outcry on this campaign was worse than before, with a full 70% of men and women disliking the ads, fairly across the board in terms of income and age.  Its strongest support came from the 35-55 age group (24%) with lower income but strongest dislike came from the 18-24s (69%) with higher income.  This is not unexpected, I think, with the amount of people a young person comes into contact with, they are likely friends with someone who suffered from HIV or AIDS or at least had had a scare.  The access to higher education and potential for horizon-expanding travel also tends to soften hearts when it comes to the sufferings of people. I think those who are older tend to view an STD as an unfortunate kind of justice for ‘screwing around.’

Either way, many AIDS groups were outraged and one, Association Française de la Lutte contre la Sida (AFLS) even sued Benetton over ‘hijacking a humanitarian cause for commercial ends.’  Clearly, this was a misstep for Benetton Communications Group.  Yves Saint Laurent, a known competitor of Benetton took the opportunity to kick Benetton while they were down, taking out an ad showing a condom stuffed with bank notes next to a ‘United Boycott’ logo in Benetton’s signature typeface and green color.  Stores were vandalized, store owners voiced their dissatisfaction with Benetton’s folly in ad campaigns.

To what extent is the communicated message universal?  To the extent the message is universal, one would expect a uniform global ad campaign to be successful.  Would this be the case here? Why/Why not?

The communicated message goes out to all people, it is seen by most, and everyone has to see, comprehend, and react to it.  The communicated message also touches people in some way.  Some people are in an interracial relationship with varying degrees of support, some may have family or friends who have had a brush with an STD or who may have lost friends to HIV/AIDS.  There are military families who are affected by war to varying degrees (all gave some, some gave all), there are always going to be families with babies.  I think Benetton was trying to get to the heart of the fact that we humans have universal experiences.  If you haven’t personally been on the receiving end of, say, racism, then you probably know someone who has. Benetton was trying to highlight the fact that there aren’t “races” there is just the one, human race. We need to talk about the hard topics like war, sex, and inequality, then come together and bring peace in our time.  I think the way he went about bringing up the topic was ham-handed and not well-explained.  What would the outcome have been, ideally?  Whatever it was in Benetton’s mind, it was probably naive to think that way.  The topics he chose to address in his campaigns are polarizing. While it’s important to bring attention to the things we want to change in the world,  there are better ways to open dialogue for real change.  For example, the images he used were hard-hitting and, in the case of some photos, culturally insensitive (I am thinking specifically of the ad with the multi-racial trio of children sticking their tongues out… in some places that’s the equivalent of flipping someone off) in the context of advertisements.  I don’t think it’s possible to use these hot-button topics in a global manner and have it be a successful campaign.

Discuss the ethical aspects of using human suffering in ads. Does your answer influence how likely you would be to buy a Benetton product? Why/Why not?

I think that advertising, social communication, and the media have enormous influence worldwide.  Advertising is a pervasive, powerful force shaping attitudes and behavior in the world and has a profound impact on how people understand life, the world, and themselves, especially in regard to their values and ways of choosing and behaving.  This is what Benetton tried to harness in his campaigns from 1985 to 1991 (and even today).

Basically, advertising has two purposes: to inform and to persuade. Both are very often simultaneously present in a given campaign.  Advertising does not simply mirror the attitudes and values of the surrounding culture.  It does act as a mirror in the way social media does, but it is more like the general media in that it helps shape the reality it reflects, and sometimes presents a distorted image of that reality. Advertisers are selective about the values and attitudes to be fostered and encouraged, promoting some while ignoring others.  This selectivity gives the lie to the notion that advertising is simply a mirror, for example, the absence from advertising of certain racial and ethnic groups in some multiracial or multiethnic societies can help to create problems of image and identity, especially among those neglected, and the almost inevitable impression in commercial advertising that an abundance of possessions leads to happiness and fulfillment can be both misleading and frustrating.

Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development.  It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, both emerged and emerging.  Advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development.  It does this, among other ways, by informing people about the availability of new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping potential buyers make informed, prudent consumer decisions, contributing to the efficiency and lowering of prices, and stimulating economic progress through the expansion of business and trade.  All this can contribute to the creation of new jobs, higher incomes, and a more decent and humane way of life for all.  It also helps pay for publications, programming, and productions that bring information, entertainment, and inspiration to people around the world.  Advertising benefits the political, moral, cultural, and religious aspects of a society.

There is nothing intrinsically good or intrinsically evil about advertising. It is a tool, an instrument. It can be used well to benefit society or it can be used badly to have a negative, harmful impact on individuals and society at large. More often, though, advertising is used not simply to inform but to persuade and motivate — to convince people to act in certain ways, to buy certain products or services, patronize certain institutions, etc.  This is where abuse can occur. It is essential that those in media have some sense of moral order and apply it faithfully– the moral order being the law of human nature the “public order and general morality” that the Italian High Court spoke of in our case study. In this context advertisers and the media have only two options: either help human persons to grow in their understanding and practice of what is true and good, or they are destructive forces in conflict with human well-being. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they move people to do. This is a responsibility laid on the shoulders of everyone involved in media, from Publishers to network Executives.

This all comes full circle in the Benetton case. This moral  responsibility also applies to the means and techniques of advertising: it is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation. There is an imperative requirement, finding its base in the law of human nature, that advertising respect the human person, his right duty to make a responsible choice, and his interior freedom. Advertising can violate the dignity of the human person both through its content and through the impact it seeks to make upon its audience. Appeals to lust, vanity, greed, envy, and techniques that manipulate and exploit human weakness are some such violations.  In such circumstances, advertisements readily become vehicles of a deformed outlook on life, the family, religion and general morality– an outlook that does not respect the true dignity and destiny of the human person. This problem is especially acute where particularly vulnerable groups or classes of persons are concerned: children and young people, the elderly, the poor, and the culturally disadvantaged. Benetton fell neatly into this category of violation of human dignity by creating and selecting for use images he knew to be provocative. There was no follow-up dialogue to help soften a hard-hitting images, in the case of the AIDS ad, no follow-up to push the dialogue towards prevention or elimination or even to raise awareness, there was only him throwing the ad to the public and sitting back to see what happened. Only when the outcry reach a certain pitch did he release a statement that was not an apology, but an explanation of  “what he meant.”  In many cases Benetton indicated his surprise that the public did not immediately grasp his meaning. Sometimes ads were pulled from circulation, sometimes they were not, depending on the number of publishers willing to print them, or in the case of the trio with their tongues out, cultural norms superseded Benetton’s point about racial integration.

Advertising that specifically utilizes human suffering has its place with companies that actively work to alleviate that suffering. Organizations such as Living Water International, Habitat for Humanity, the Sisters of Charity, etc. all work on the ground with those who desperately need help.  They can properly use images of human suffering because they are reaching out with an emotional appeal to would-be benefactors so people can see the suffering they work to heal and they can be moved to give freely to the charity or organization. Thinking of a local ad, the HSPCA (the Houston chapter of the ASPCA) puts out a plea for donations using the worst pictures and videos of emaciated dogs and cats.  The world’s sadness is found tenfold in the eyes of these sweet animals and it makes you want to empty every wallet, bank, and coat pocket, adopt them all, and make sure none of them ever go another second without your love. How much more do we feel that desire to give when we see a suffering human?  

I don’t feel like Benetton himself is being sincere when he offers excuse after excuse for this exploitative use of provocative images. He clearly isn’t learning from the indignation the public rightly shows towards these types of ads. Given all this, I wouldn’t buy a Benetton sweater.


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