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Brands Nov 17, 2011

Benetton does it again: shocking their way to the bank

By Anant Rangaswami

Benetton withdrew an advertisement using an image of Pope Benedict kissing an Imam on the mouth, after the Vatican protested on Wednesday at the Italian clothing firm's latest shock campaign.

Benetton said the purpose of its campaign was "exclusively to fight the culture of hate in every form" but said it had nonetheless decided to withdraw the image. "We are sorry that the use of an image of the pontiff and the Imam should have offended the sensibilities of the faithful in this way," it said in a statement. More details here.

In their new campaign, Unhate, Benetton uses images of obvious protagonists lip-locked in a kiss. The choice of the kissing partners - the Pope and an Imam, Hu Jin Tao and Obama, Chavez and Obama, Merkel and Sarkozy, to name a few, certainly caused one to stop in one's tracks and notice the communication.

A man takes a picture of a Benetton ad in their shop in Rome. The montage showed the pope kissing a leading imam. AFP

This is not the first time that Benetton has taken the shock route.

The brand has used their communication to highlight and draw attention to the issues of racism, AIDS, war, conflict, anorexia, and so on. The images, for decades, in a famous partnership, were the work of Oliviero Toscani, and helped catapult what was once a little-known brand into the arc lights.

"There are people who, when they look at a picture, they get angry at it. But they should get angry at themselves for not having the courage to look into the problem," Toscani had told CNN in an interview.

"There isn't such a thing as a shocking picture," he continues, "there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren't there."

The current campaign, which Toscani is not involved in, continues where he left off, with images that make people 'angry' - and intended to draw attention to a 'shocking reality'.

This is not just a collection of controversial images - there's a method behind the seeming madness. Says Benetton on the campaign, "These are symbolic images of reconciliation - with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation - to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, even when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation."

Does shock sell - when there's no connection with the product and no visual of the product?

"In a postmodern world caught in the disruptive forces of nationalism, famine, violence, and war, such representations linked Benetton's image less to the imperatives of racial harmony than to the forces of cultural uniformity and yuppie colonization. Moreover, Benetton's move away from an appeal to utility to one of social responsibility, provides an object lesson in how promotional culture, increasingly uses pedagogical practices to shift its emphasis from selling a product to selling an image of corporate responsibility. Given the increase in sales, profits, and the widespread publicity Benetton has received, the campaign appears to have worked wonders," wrote Henry A. Giroux from the California State University.

Nearer home, brands such as 8 PM whiskey and Airtel have used war as an attention grabbing device to cut the clutter on TV screens. 8 PM, in an award winning commercial, showed two army officers at a border enjoying a drink together.

Airtel used the border differently, showing two young boys on two sides of the border playing football - and 'connecting'.

There are many such instances. Very rarely do these commercials, or the campaign, shock as much as the Benetton campaigns do. More importantly, these are stray commercials rather than one which is a part of a long-term positioning exercise.

That's the big gain for Benetton. Each campaign of theirs causes consumers to recall older ones - and causes media to write about the communication - with Benetton laughing all the way to the bank, with the free publicity that their ads attract.

Will Benetton goods fly off the shelves, thanks to this campaign? They've done so as a result of previous campaigns; there's no reason to believe that this won't work.

If it works, it's not a shock. It's not even a surprise.

by Anant Rangaswami

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