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Benetton was founded in 1965 by Luciano Benetton and his wife Guilliana as an Italian knitwear company, headquartered near Treviso, Italy, where it still exists today (Benetton 2018). The company also includes their own manufacturing factories in Italy, in addition to other countries, saving on tariffs, taxes, and shipping. Today, Benetton has transformed into the global fashion empire that is United Colors of Benetton, which has thousands of stores that exclusively carry Benetton merchandise worldwide. All advertising and promotion is corporately initiated. The brand has expanded over the years to carry not only knits but full product lines for women, men and children, with accessories, footwear, underwear, swimwear, and scents. Store managers are selected by agents who are often part owners of the store (Benetton 2018). Benetton currently has over 6,000 retail stores in over thirty-eight countries including India, Japan, China, Russian, Saudi Arabia, England, and the United States. Since the cultures and psychographics of the market vary from country to country the reception to the style of advertising and visual imagery offered to the consumer varies. Merchandise is also promoted, sold, and advertised online through corporate websites, and social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and their store magalogs.
In the 1990s Benetton used a Paris-based advertising firm to develop their promotional campaigns. Oliviero Toscani was Benetton’s campaign photographer and director. Luciano believed that, in developing advertising campaigns that made social comment his company was freeing the product from the world of merchandising. By capitalizing solely on an image, the advertisements demonstrated an effort to communicate beyond the Benneton merchandise to the individual. This meant that the campaigns did not aim to directly market the company’s products, but instead tried to target individuals who shared similar sociocultural views and thus would be drawn into their brand. Toscani’s advertising campaigns featured advertisements that made visual commentaries on political and social matters and concerns that eventually gained notoriety by using shock-tactic themes.
Toscani’s first campaign for Benetton pictured models of various ethnicities, emphasizing the diversity of society, with no written copy, and just the corporate name. The promotion was positively received by consumers, and the advertising received a lot of public and editorial praise. Productless advertising, such as this, is a method of advertising which is usually used to market company philosophies or promote a designer image. Without emphasis on product characteristics, the advertisements attempted to predispose the consumer to what makes one manufacturer distinctive from another. Without any merchandise or copy, the impact of the advertisements rested solely on the unexplained visual image. Toscani created a series of artistically composed advertising layouts for Benetton, featuring images meant to reflect problems in contemporary society relating to perceived equality between people. These images touched on race, religion, birth, illness, and death, among other aspects of life. These were met with negative reactions from some minority, religious, and parents’ groups—confirmation that the campaign attracted attention.
The first advert in Toscani’s final campaign for Benetton pictured two male arms, one white and one black, handcuffed together at the wrists, both dressed in light-blue, denim work shirts. American civil rights groups complained that handcuffs do not convey brotherhood. The advert did not run in the UK.
Another advert in this campaign was rejected by some US publications. It featured a black woman nursing a white infant. The rejection partially came from an American awareness of conditions before the Civil War when black women were forced to nurse white children while their own went hungry. The other negative reactions were in response to the woman’s bare breast being shown in the ad.
One advert portrayed a family grieving at the bedside of a young man who had just died of AIDS. While the advert earned Benetton an international journalism award, the public reaction was to question whether the advert raised awareness of the disease or exploited it. As a result of other advertisements that referred to the same illness, a French court found Benetton guilty of exploiting the illness and ordered the company to pay damages to a national AIDS organization, which was responsible for the suit.
Figure 1. A picture taken in France, 1991, depicts Benetton’s advert featuring a baby with an uncut umbilical cord. Credit: William Stevens/Gamma-Rapho/Getty images.
Perhaps the biggest reaction was caused by an advert picturing a nun and priest kissing on the mouth. This advert was rejected by all American publications except one. Following pressure from the Vatican, the image was finally prohibited in Italy due to its offending of religious values and trivialization of the Catholic Church (Selwyn-Holmes 2009).
The final advert from this campaign was published in January 2000. It depicted death row inmates staring into the camera behind the words “Sentenced to Death.” This last campaign caused a backlash of negative publicity. Since the inception of the campaign, Benetton was barraged by individuals and/or groups that opposed the style of advertising. The company also received lawsuits and threatening letters to corporate officers and their families. Consequently, in 2000, and after eighteen years with the company, Benetton and Toscani parted ways. The advertising campaign director stated that he had no regrets regarding his photographs (Seth 2018).
Since 2000, despite some economic problems, lawsuits surrounding the campaign, and stores closing, the corporation’s net earnings have increased. This could be a result of licenses for new merchandise in the product line, expansion into new countries, and possibly even the negative publicity that Benetton has gotten from its nontraditional advertising.
Figure 2. Benetton’s 2011 “Unhate” Campaign featured, amongst other images, the then president of the United States Barak Obama kissing Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Chinese president Hu Jintao, and Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egyptian grand imam Ahmed el-Tayyeb. The White House protested the use of Obama’s image due to a longstanding policy to not use the president’s image for commercial purposes. Benetton withdrew the image of Pope Benedict following action taken by the Vatican. Credit: Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images News/Getty images.
After a hiatus of seventeen years, Benetton brought back Toscani as the art director starting with the 2018 spring/summer campaign. Toscani commented to the press on his past campaigns, current views, and the concept behind this new campaign, stating that he believes it is his responsibility to address the “problems of humanity” and that it is his “role to present reality” through his art (Seth 2018).
The new up-beat advertising campaign that Toscani produced for spring/summer 2018 was product driven, and featured a diverse mix of models featuring people from four continents and thirteen different countries wearing the seasonal merchandise lines—some are smiling and wearing flowers, and others are interacting and seemingly at play. Some garments modelled have phrases like “gender-free zone” and “colours don’t have gender.” Toscani, stated in an interview that his images for this campaign are “about integration, humanity, and the end of discrimination.” He was asked if he would tone down his advertising this time around, referring to his previous shock techniques, and he responded that “he didn’t know” (Seth 2018).
Shortly following the release of the Benetton spring/summer 2018 line, Toscani, seemed to push the boundaries with the advertising messages, when public controversy arose once more. In June 2018, Benetton advertised using two unauthorized photographs of rescued migrants on their social media sites and in one Italian newspaper, with just the Benetton name on the images (Yeginsu 2018).
The rescue organization SOS Méditeranée publically condemned the promotion and put out a statement disassociating themselves from the use of their images, stating that the “Dignity of survivors must be respected at all times.” In addition, Italy’s interior minister announced that he found the campaign “despicable.” At the time, Benetton did not comment on the controversy, but they did remove one of the two images (Puhak 2018).
Discuss whether Benetton’s controversial advertising style negatively impacts their brand image. Should Benetton change their advertising style and thus their corporate image, or modify their advertising personnel? Develop several alternative solutions and identify advantages and disadvantages of each. Which one would you recommend and why?
Explore a recent advertising campaign from Benetton and discuss whether you think that this campaign could have positively or negatively impacted their brand image. What impact might this have had on their sales? State reasons for your answer.
Bring to class examples of recent advertising campaigns you identify as the most effective. What attributes make them successful—humor, shock, sex, entertainment, effective imagery? Present your thoughts to the class.
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Benetton. 2018. Accessed August 2018. https://www.benetton.com .
2018. “United Colors of Benetton Slammed Using Migrant Workers in Ad Campaign.” Fox News, June 22. Accessed June 2018. https://www.foxnews.com/lifestyle/2018/06/22/united-colors-benetton-slammed-for-using-migrants-in-ad-campaign.html ..
2009. “Kissing Nun.” Iconicphotos, June 5. Accessed August 2018. https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/kissing-nun/ ..
2018. “Benetton’s Art Director on the Importance of Counting Controversy.” Vogue, February 12. Accessed June 2018. https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/benettons-best-advertising-campaign ..
2018. “Benetton. Migrants’ Ads Draw Outrage for Using Photos of Real Migrants.” New York Times, June 21. Accessed June 2018. https://www.thenewyorktimes.com/2918/06/21/world/europe/benetton-ad-migrants/html ..
The authors wrote this case solely to provide material for class discussion and independent learning. The authors do not intend to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of a situation. The comments and interpretation presented are not necessarily those of the company or its employees.
This case study was adapted from: “Sandini’s Corporate Image” by Janice Ellinwood, published in Concepts and Cases in Retail and Merchandise Management, edited by Nancy J. Rabolt and Judy K. Miler, 2nd ed. (2009) New York: Fairchild Books.