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Three ways to look at Benetton: the cause, the creative, the controversy

In The Age of the SWARM*, when every news outlet, blogger and tweeter jumps on the story of the moment, it’s no surprise that on November 16, we saw thousands of Benetton-related headlines telling us that the “Vatican threatens legal action,” and “Benetton pulls pope-kissing ad.” After all, that was the day that all hell broke loose over Benetton’s new ad campaign featuring global leaders kissing each other. But if you looked beyond the echo chamber of RTs and redundant posts there wasn’t

much in the way of real analysis. Sure the Pope was PO’d. But was the campaign any good? Is the cause it supports worthy? Was the controversy a surprise or the objective of the campaign in the first place?

It strikes me these are all questions worth considering for those of us interested in branding, advertising and social media. So I thought I’d weigh in.

The Cause: UNHATE fits perfectly with Benetton’s history of social advocacy

These days it’s common for marketers to jump on the social cause bandwagon in an

attempt to generate good will. But taking a stand and supporting causes has been part of Benetton’s DNA for decades. The brand has a long history of social responsibility (or in some cases advertising disguised as such). It’s run campaigns and launched programs to subvert stereotypes, protest war, fight famine and challenge the death penalty. There was even a campaign to encourage entrepreneurialism in Africa.

If you haven’t checked out Benetton’s new initiative, you should. Benetton’s in- house agency Fabrica (working with outside agency 72andSunny) didn’t just launch an ad campaign for the sake of generating buzz, it created the UNHATE foundation and introduced a series of programs it hopes will contribute to a culture of tolerance. The effort appears to be much more than lip service. It includes educational programs and support for international NGOs that teach tolerance, a Global Tolerance Index, efforts to promote human rights and support for art programs that bear witness or contrast hatred.

UNHATE may or may not be its biggest or best effort to date – it’s too soon to tell, despite the fact that SWARM thinking wants instant conclusions but perhaps we should credit the Italian apparel maker; it chose both to speak out and to put resources behind a worthy cause and message.

(I did come across one face worth noting in writing this post: while Benetton is a brand that prides itself in social responsibility, it ranks rather poorly in certain related behavioral traits you’d expect the company to do well in, including carbon

emissions, environmental policy and labor conditions.)

The Creative: Not the best effort

If the main job of a creative execution is to get noticed, then this campaign works brilliantly. But if we want to apply higher standards taste, cleverness, originality – then the kissing campaign does not rank among Benetton’s best. Take a look at some of the United Colors of Benetton ads of the past. The integrated family. The vials of leaders’ blood, all of it the same color. The white baby nursing from a black breast. The images were not only startling, but less expected. There’s something about the kissing joke that feels a little too easy and obvious.

UNHATE may or may not be its biggest or best effort to date – it’s tooranks rather poorly in certain related behavioral traits you’d expect the company to do well in, including carbon emissions, environmental policy and labor conditions.) The Creative: Not the best effort If the main job of a creative execution is to get noticed, then this campaign works brilliantly. But if we want to apply higher standards – taste, cleverness, originality – then the kissing campaign does not rank among Benetton’s best. Take a look at some of the United Colors of Benetton ads of the past. The integrated famil y . The vials of leaders’ blood, all of it the same color. The white baby nursing from a black breast. The images were not only startling, but less expected. There’s somethin g about the kissin g j oke that feels a little too eas y and obvious. Past Benetton campaigns were more clever and charming and still unexpected for the time in which they ran. " id="pdf-obj-1-36" src="pdf-obj-1-36.jpg">

Past Benetton campaigns were more clever and charming and still unexpected for the time in which they ran.

Then again, it does give a nod to another great Benetton kissing ad featuring a priest

and a nun, produced 20 years ago. I suppose that for the few of us familiar with

Benetton’s history you could argue it’s an inside joke.

We all know it’s easier to be critical than to come up with a better idea yourself, but it doesn’t help that Oliviero Toscani, the photographer who created the most famous Benetton ad images slammed the campaign, calling it “pathetic and the product of a beginner’s art class.” Ouch.

On another note, the website is pretty good. It’s clean, well designed, easy to navigate and invites participation via the Kiss Wall. Perhaps what this effort and campaign really needs is just some time.

The Controversy: Intentional or accidental?

If you want your next ad campaign to generate millions of media impressions just

add a picture of the Pope in a compromising position. Search “Benetton Pope” and you get pages and pages of coverage. It’s hard to imagine a better viral scenario. The

cynical among us have already ventured that the entire campaign was created for no other reason to generate press coverage.

It’s unlikely that Benetton will admit whether or not they sought such a reaction, but it’s hard to imagine it didn’t cross their mind to expect comments like Father Federico Lombardi’s declaration that the doctored photo exhibited “a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offense against the sentiments of the faithful and a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules of respect for people in

order to attract attention through provocation.”

Marketers often find themselves deluged by unexpected reaction, whether in response to a calculated risk or a innocent mistake. Just witness Qantas’s #qantasluxury fiasco yesterday. But in Benetton’s case the brand had to know from past experience. In response to Benetton’s Death Row ads in 2000 Sears removed all Benetton products from its stores and terminated its contract with the company.

Last year Benetton net income fell 33 percent, a fact Benetton attributed to the economy. Perhaps a little free publicity and controversy is just what the brand needs to jump start business and stay top of mind.

It may not be a strategy for all brands, but it seems to work over and over again for the Italian company.