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Benetton Group:
Unconventional Advertising
Senthil Ganesan
Thanks to its unusual communication strategy, Italy-based
Benetton Group is one of the most visible speciality retailers
in the world. Until 2000, Benetton had survived using some
of the most controversial images in its communication
campaigns. Masterminded by Benettons Creative Director
and Photographer (from 1982) Oliviero Toscani, these
campaigns generated both criticism and accolades throughout
the world. Toscani is credited with being the first in the
advertising industry to use campaigns that did not feature
the product at all. In 2000, Toscani went one step further
and launched a campaign We, on Death Row. The criticism
surrounding this campaign was so intense that Toscani was
forced to resign. Under the new Creative Director James
Mollison, Benetton is now using more of traditional productbased advertising. This case outlines Benettons unique
communication philosophy and the many controversies
generated by it. The case aims at triggering classroom
discussion on the effects of shock advertising and ethics in
advertising.
Source: The ICFAI Knowledge Centre (IKC). The ICFAI University. All rights reserved.

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The purpose of advertising is not to sell more. Its to do with institutional publicity,
whose aim is to communicate the companys values (...) We need to convey a single
strong image, which can be shared anywhere in the world.
Luciano Benetton, Founder Chairman
I am not here to sell pullovers, but to promote an image... Benettons advertising
draws public attention to universal themes like racial integration, the protection
of the environment, Aids...
Oliviero Toscani, Benetton Art Director and Photographer

enetton Group is engaged in the manufacturing and distribution of clothing,


undergarments, shoes, cosmetics and accessories. Benetton also licensed its
brand name for a number of products like sunglasses, stationery, cosmetics, linens,
watches, toys, steering wheels and knobs for automobile gearshifts, golf
equipments, designer condoms, luggage and designer pagers, etc.
Benetton Group: Unconventional Advertising

The groups principal brands


included United Colors of Benetton
(UCB), Sisley, PlayLife, Nordica, Prince,
Rollerblade, and Killer Loop.

The Benetton family (comprised of


three brothers and a sister) established
the Benetton chain in a small Italian
town in 1955. To support his family,
Luciano Benetton (born 1935),
dropped out of school to sell apparel.
His sister Guiliana (born 1937) worked as a knitter in a local factory. Recognizing
the potential for a new business, Luciano and Guiliana decided to start their own
apparel company. They started off small by selling sweaters and as the business
grew, the remaining two brothers joined in the activities of the company. Each of
the four siblings took responsibility for one aspect of the business Luciano
concentrated on marketing; Guiliana directed the design department; Gilberto

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(born 1941) handled administration and finance; and Carlo (born 1943) managed
production. As business picked up, the company entered into an agreement to
open a store for the exclusive marketing of apparel. The first store was opened in
1969 and was an immediate success.
The same year, it went overseas by opening a similar store in Paris. Unlike
most small producers, who opted for the widest possible distribution, they decided
to create a network of exclusive distributors, and used sub-contractors. The chain
soon expanded across the world and established strong brand equity. The company
is listed in Milan, London, Frankfurt, New York, Toronto and Tokyo stock
exchanges. As of 2001, the company operated in about 120 countries through
more than 7,000 retail stores.
Benetton is one of the strongest brands in the world and adding to its
popularity is the companys advertising strategy. The biggest accolade that the
company received was for its practice to separate its products from advertisements.
Benetton is well-known across the world for its unusual advertising techniques
and themes, most of them bordering on controversy and debate. Benetton utilized
shock value and the reality of photographs to grab viewers attention and to
make their brand name memorable. Unlike most advertisements which centered
around a companys product or image, Benettons advertising campaigns addressed
social and political issues like racial integration, AIDS awareness, war, poverty,
child labor, death, pollution etc. The company tried more to communicate to
the world about these issues rather than to sell apparel and accessories.

The Way of the Advertisements


Benetton has earned worldwide recognition by creating advertisement themes
that promote diversity and various other social causes. The company strives to
promote itself as a socially responsible business, by supporting social organizations
and discussing moral issues in its print campaigns throughout the world. Various
company literature highlight Benettons advertisement strategy:
Benetton believes that it is important for companies to take a stance in the real
world instead of using their advertising budget to perpetuate the myth that they can
make consumers happy through the mere purchase of their product. The company opted
for a communication strategy in which issues and not clothes, play the lead part. The

Benetton Group: Unconventional Advertising

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company has decided to devote some of its advertising budget to communicate on themes
relevant to young and old people worldwide.
Until the 1980s, Benetton advertisements were of the traditional form and
largely focused on its products and logo (stylized knot of yarn with word Benetton
printed under it, contained within a dark green rectangle). In 1982, Luciano
Benetton hired Oliviero Toscani, a prominent fashion and advertisements
photographer to head the advertising department of the company. Toscanis initial
advertisements were conventional in style showing groups of young people wearing
Benetton clothing. Luciano and Toscani soon realized that Benetton advertisements
had to stand apart from the rest of the competition and also from the standard
practices of the advertising industry. They decided to promote Benetton as a life
style accessory and not as a clothing brand.
Toscanis first theme featured teenagers and kids from culturally diverse nations.
Colorfully dressed in Benetton attire, the kids engaged in a variety of playful
acts. By linking the varying colors in the Benetton collection to the diverse colors
of its world customers, Toscani portrayed a picture of racial harmony and world
peace. It was from these advertisements that the world famous inspirational
trademark United Colors of Benetton emerged.
In 1984, the company launched a similar campaign titled All the colors in
the World, showing groups of teenagers and kids from different countries and
ethnic groups dressed in
Benetton clothing, with the
company logo in the corner.
Bruno Suter, Director of
Eldorado Agency that handled
Benettons advertising account,
commented on this multi-race
theme:
Nothing more is more like a fashion photograph than another fashion photograph.
You show some lovely looking models and thats it. With Benetton, we started out with
the notion of color. By definition, Benetton means colors. So, to convey this idea of

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colors, we showed a group, made up of people with different colored skin. It was fantastic,
so exhilarating to show the products in such a new and simple way.
In 1985, advertisements
included two black boys kissing
each other, with little US and
USSR flags in their hair and
painted on their cheeks with the
tagline United Colors of
Benetton. In 1986, the two little
black boys appeared again, united
by a globe and a chain with the
peace symbol. The globe became a
symbol of unification, and appeared on all the posters that year. Similar themed
advertisements were launched for other countries in political battles with each
other: England and Argentina, Israel and Germany, Iran and Iraq, Israelis and
Arabs, etc. The message read: All colors are equal, just as all men are equal.
Through such advertisements, Benetton aimed to create a feeling of world peace
and harmony.
In 1988, the company started
mixing culture and legends. New
advertisements featured Adam and Eve,
Joan of Arc and Marilyn Monroe,
Leonardo de Vinci and Julius Caesar,
all captioned with the slogan: United
Superstars of Benetton.
Similar campaigns were also done with animals a wolf and a lamb with the
tagline: United Friends of Benetton.
Since Benettons clothing was sold in so many different markets, each one
preferring different styles.
Toscani decided that the company turn to advertisements featuring not
products but photos that stimulated thinking. His new advertisements neither
showed the products nor the logo. The knot logo was replaced with a small green

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triangle with the tagline United


Colors of Benetton. Luciano
Benetton explained his decision to
separate the products from the
advertisements:
Using these images in this
unconventional way is an effort by
Benetton to break through the
complacency that exists in our
society due to the constant flow of even the most horrendous realities
communicated through conventional media such as the evening news or the
morning paper. By removing these images from their familiar contexts and putting
them in a new context they are more likely to be noticed and given the attention
they deserve as the viewer becomes involved in the process of answering the
questions: What does this
image mean? Why does this
image appear with a Benetton
logo? How do I feel about the
subject of the image? What
can I do?
Famous advertisements
during the late 1980s
included a black hand and a
white hand linked by a handcuff, a black woman breast-feeding a white baby.
The black woman-white baby advertisement received severe criticism because
many thought that Benetton was reminding the black people of the US and UK
of the times of slavery when black women breast-fed white babies. However,
Benetton maintained that such photos were only symbols of brotherhood in the
world and not exploitation of a particular race. Other advertisements signifying
brotherhood and camaraderie included a white wolf and a black sheep nose to
nose, a black child sleeping among a pile of white teddy-bears, a little black hand
on a big white hand, a piano duo showing little white hands being helped by big
black hands, two children (one black, the other white) facing each other sitting

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on their potties, tubes of


personality tests, several young
couples of miners and bakers
united by the black of the soot
or coal and the white of the
flour.
An angelic-looking white
child embracing a black one
whose hair shaped into devils
horns created a lot of consternation among Black groups in the US.
In 1991, Toscani introduced a number of advertisements that discussed other
social issues. The advertisements
were a means to draw attention
to important social problems
and thereby generate public
discussion. Throughout the
early
1990s,
Benetton
advertisements featured a
cemetery (signifying war
deaths), many different brightly
colored condoms, a baby with
an umbilical cord, a priest and
a nun kissing, etc. The advertisement featuring the priest and nun seriously
offended the Pope of Vatican and the religious sentiments of many. The image of
the baby with an umbilical cord invited mixed responses. In the companys view,
advertisement simply conveyed the beauty of new life. More specifically the
advertisement was to convey the universal idea of love as a force from which life
itself is born and that a baby symbolizes the most permanent form of love. The
photo set off a huge controversy throughout Europe and many wanted it to be
banned. At the same time, however, the image was exhibited in a Flemish museum
as part of a show celebrating the images of motherhood.
In 1992, Toscani combined advertisements with politics to further promote
the Benetton image. He selected a series of photojournalistic images concerning

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the AIDS crisis, environmental disaster, political violence, war exile, etc. These
appeared in various journals and magazines as well as on billboards without written
text except for the conspicuous insertion of the green and white Benetton logo
located in the margins. Toscani explained the companys decision to shift towards
photojournalistic images.
Unlike traditional adverts, our images usually have no copy and no product,
only our logo. They do not show you a fictitious reality in which you will be
irresistible if you make use of our products. They do not tell anyone to buy our
clothes, they do not even imply it. All they attempt to do is promote a discussion
about issues which people would normally glide over if they approached them
from other channels, issues we feel should be more widely discussed.
Though most of its advertisements were severely rebuked by governments,
media and general public alike,
Toscani went one step further
by
embracing
reality
advertising. Advertisements
included: A dying AIDS victim
with his family at his bedside,
an African guerrilla holding a
Kalachnikov and a human leg
bone, a boat overcrowded with
Albanians, a group of African
refugees, a car in flames after a
Mafia bombing, a family weeping before the bloodied corpse of a Mafioso, two
Indians caught in a flood in Kolkata, etc.
Benetton also launched an advertisement with a series of masculine and feminine
genitals, all different ages, all different colors with the label United Colors of
Benetton. A more shocking advertisement showed close-ups of various parts of
the human body (pubis, arms, stomach, bottom) tattooed with the English
abbreviation HIV Positive. The tattoo mark was similar to the numbers tattooed
by Nazis on concentration camp prisoners.

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Benetton advertisements also promoted homosexuality: Two smiling men cheek


to cheek, two women one white and the other black, holding an Asian baby,
wrapped in the same blanket,
etc. Other controversial
advertisements included a
black stallion mounting a
white mare, three identical
human hearts, with stickers
announcing different ethnic
groups white, black and yellow. The hearts portrayed that everybody was the
same in the inside, no matter what the outside skin color was.
Apart from advertisements for billboards and magazines, Benetton also created
a number of catalogs titled People and Places. Catalog themes included Young
People in Tokyo, Sunflowers (featuring children with Downs Syndrome),
Jerusalem, Ponzano (Italy), Corleone (Italy), China, India, etc. These catalogs
featured pictures of people from the above-mentioned countries. In 1998,
Benetton used images of Arabs and Jews living and working together in Israel.
Titled Enemies, the cover showed a kiss between a 24-year-old Israeli student
and her 22-year-old Bedouin boyfriend. The catalog included photos of an Arab
grocer and a Jewish customer, Jewish and Arab youth leaders, a mixed kindergarten
of Jewish and Arab kids, a music band comprising of Jews and Arabs, etc.
In January 2000, Benetton released its deathrow advertising campaign, which featured prisoners
who had been sentenced to death. The campaign
appeared on billboards and in major publications
in Europe, America and Asia. The advertisements
featured full color faces of death-row inmates,
printing their names and dates of execution. A special
booklet and video was also released that aimed at
showing the reality and futility of capital
punishment. The booklet included photos of 26
inmates and interviews in which they discussed
about life and their punishment. Benetton thought that if the public saw these

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inmates as people, then they would be less inclined to see the prisoners executed
and more inclined to support against death penalty.
The campaign resulted in widespread protests from customers as well as
government bodies. The families of the victims and prisoners objected strongly
to the campaign. The state of Missouri (US) where the inmates in question were
imprisoned filed a suit against the company stating that they were misled regarding
the use of the photos that were taken.
Over the years, many newspapers in many countries refused to print Benetton
advertisements. In 1995, government authorities in Germany banned Benetton
advertisements featuring child laborers, the human body stamped HIV Positive,
and a bird stuck in an oil slick. They were banned because these advertisements
exploited suffering. The newborn advertisement was withdrawn from the media
in Italy, France and UK. The more the companys advertisements were banned,
the more Benetton got publicity. Benetton was also sued by many of its retail
outlets that believed the provocative advertisements drove away customers. Many
retailers criticized Benettons strategy:
We are talking about two different arenas here. If Benetton wanted to
underwrite some cause, wed be supportive. But were trying to sell products. At
this point everyone should know what Benetton is. But we still find a lot of
people who know the name but dont know what we sell.
Luciano Benetton responded to retailers and other protestors about its
questionable advertising themes:
We are aware of the controversy that some of our images have caused, but we
believe that all worthwhile stances will have supporters and detractors. Our hope
is that people will move from the sterile discussion of whether or not a company
is entitled to illustrate its point of view in its advertising campaigns, to a discussion
of the issues themselves. In various countries, this has already happened. As more
and more people understand our position and the urgency of these issues, we
hope to become the vehicle for discussion and not its focus.

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One leading magazine summarized Benettons advertisements:


They seem to take the virtuous stand for the betterment of humanity and thus
create a sense of power in the viewer who agrees with the safe, politically correct message,
even if the message is made with shocking images. By empowering the viewer, the
consumer, the company associates itself with engineered feelings of empowerment and
righteousness. Through the use of such images Benetton as a company has become icon
for this kind of protest in advertising which tries to claim the ability for social change.
In reality, Benetton creates an empowered viewer who will buy their product through
shock value, empowerment and memorability.

Benetton and Oliviero Toscani


The strong force behind Benettons advertisements was Oliviero Toscani who
created advertisements the less traditional way. Toscanis responsibility, as
Benettons creative director, was to document social realities rather than promote
sales. He explained his role in the company:
Nobody ever told me my job was to sell anything. Im responsible for the companys
communications; Im not responsible for its economics. Benetton has given me incredible
freedom to propose issues that should be communicated. To be really contemporary, an
upto-date company, we must take our communication in another direction. Not the
one usually followed by most companies, in the apparel business, at least when theres
an obvious connection between product, model and merchandizing. Im aware that,
having a relatively big budget, it would be like throwing money away if we only
explained that our product is better than the competitions. Advertising should give
something more... Thats my work, to report something that exists. We cant be like
ostriches who put their head in the sand.
His advertising style was in strict contrast to most advertising styles and he
identified a number of drawbacks in traditional advertising. In an interview he
commented:
There is a crisis in advertising. The industry is lagging behind social trends, but its
so rich and powerful that its very difficult for it to change. In the early twentieth
century advertising focused on a companys buildings and machines. After that it started

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presenting products. Then, since all products started looking alike, they could no longer
be at the heart of the message. So in the 1960s advertisers started showing leggy models
to sell cars. The long legs offered added value. The product took a back seat and what
was sold was a symbol. The problem with this technique is that the message is always
based on consumers shortcomings and makes them feel guilty. It tells them, if you
havent got this product, youre out of it. On the other hand, if you buy a certain brand
of sports shoes you can play like Ronaldo even if you cant kick a ball.
He believes that the industry as a whole should change the way advertisements
are used. The reason being that consumer-spending pattern had changed over
the years. He explained:
They have to be more creative, but the advertising industry couldnt care less about
creativity. It wants to perpetuate the system to keep on living off it. The fact is that
advertisers must explain the client companys philosophy. If theyre successful, consumers
will work out for themselves that the products are good. To capture their attention,
advertising must become an artistic product in itself, like a play or a film. That has
never happened because the only things that condition the industry are money and
marketing managers, who are idiots. All they know how to do is repeat whats already
been done.
He latter added:
To be successful advertising has to disconnect the message from the product and
forget about marketing, which standardizes everything. I dont do the same thing other
people do. I use products to focus on the major problems besetting humanity. Ive proved
that it can be profitable. Since Ive been working for Benetton, the company has grown
tenfold. Advertising people hate me but they have to admit that Ive won.
Following the controversy surrounding the death row campaign, Oliviero
Toscani quit Benetton in May 2000. Benetton realized that it had crossed even
the boundaries of unconventional advertising with the death-row campaign.
Various surveys suggested that loyal customers also decided against shopping at
Benetton. Following Toscanis exit, Benetton highlighted its advertising strategy
for the future:

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We need to have models wearing our clothes by UCB in our advertisements. We


need to show consumers that we are an actual clothing line, and not a political or
governmental company. By picturing our stylish clothes, we will attract more business.
Consumers want to buy our clothes because they are attractive and have a high quality
reputation. People who respect our clothing line are the only ones that actually buy it,
despite the political issues that we represent. If we can undo the damage that we have
already caused in the minds of many consumers by ceasing to offend them, our sales will
greatly increase. Lets show the world that we make great clothing, not that we have
controversial opinions on various subjects.
Benetton, however, maintained that the company would still maintain its
socially responsible image by working on non-controversial causes like racial
discrimination, poverty, child labor, AIDS awareness, etc.
(Senthil Ganesan is a Faculty at ICFAI Knowledge Center, an affiliate of ICFAI
University. His areas of interest include Company Analysis and Industry Analysis.)