While I’ll admit that one of the ads in the controversial new ad campaign by Italian fashion brand Benetton is a little funny—the expression on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s face is priceless in a photo-shopped image of her being kissed by former Italian prime minister Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi—the rest of the campaign is something else: A little sad. In an effort to reinvigorate its flagging brand, the fashion company’s leaders appear to be making a desperate effort to grab the spotlight.
The campaign, which includes provocative images of various world leaders kissing each other, from President Barack Obama smooching China’s Hu Jintao to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laying one on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, was unfurled briefly Wednesday on its web site and in cities ranging from Paris to Rome. One image, depicting the Pope kissing a prominent imam, was withdrawn by the company after the Vatican strongly objected.
The ads include the words “unhate,” a reference to the company’s UNHATE Foundation, which Benetton says “seeks to contribute to the creation of a new culture of tolerance, to combat hatred, building on Benetton’s underpinning values.” It is “not a cosmetic exercise,” the company says, “but a contribution that will have a real impact on the international community.”
Maybe so. The foundation plans to start educational programs on tolerance, to support “the work of young people living in areas where hatred has generated social injustice and conflicts,” and to promote projects that fight poverty and human rights abuses. These are worthy goals, however the company intends to carry them out.
But it’s hard not to question how much this is Benetton’s primary goal in unfurling the campaign. The shock value of the campaign seems mostly designed to put its brand back in the news (ahem). Benetton, after all, has been bested by fashion brands like Zara and H&M in recent years. The Wall Street Journal reports that “at €2.05 billion, Benetton’s sales last year were only 1.5% higher than a decade earlier.” Meanwhile, Zara’s revenues last year hit €12.5 billion.
This is not a new strategy for Benetton, of course. It first became known for its ads featuring the diversity of global children in brightly colored clothes, which was unusual in the 1980s. It then moved on to more controversial campaigns, such as a photo of a priest kissing a nun or one of global AIDS victims. The new campaign is part of the company’s effort to relaunch its brand, the Journal reports, and refocus its clothing on what it was known for in the 1980s—brightly colored knitwear.
If that’s the case, why not trot out the cute multiracial children locking hands in an apparent global kumbaya? The world has changed since the ‘80s. Shock advertising is not as unusual as it once was. Consumers are more conscious about what the brands they buy stand for, and how authentic they are in achieving that loyalty. And they expect transparency more than they ever have before.
Some consumers may very well like the brand’s provocative efforts to get people talking about issues. But Benetton’s leaders also risk that the campaign causes the work of the foundation to recede into the background—some news stories did not even mention the foundation—while its obvious efforts to get buzz for a struggling brand rushes to the foreground. In other words, the very same consumers Benetton is trying to turn on to its brand, those who value tolerance and efforts at global peace, may be just as turned off by its transparent publicity grab.
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