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Benetton: UnHate. Unadvertising. Uncool?

by Mike Fromowitz on Nov 25, 2011
Benetton has, once again, thrust themselves into the spotlight with controversial ads of world leaders locking lips. As part of their "UnHate" campaign, they're urging leaders and citizens of the ...

Blogger profile: Mike Fromowitz

Mike Fromowitz is President and Chief Brand Officer of Mantra Partners, a full-service advertising and branding agency. The company works for clients in Asia, South America, USA and Canada.

Benetton has, once again, thrust themselves into the spotlight with controversial ads of world leaders locking lips. As part of their "UnHate" campaign, they're urging leaders and citizens of the world to combat "culture of hatred.'

Most advertising is devoid of risk taking. Either no one dares to try to do something new and different or they’re waiting for someone else to do something different so they can copy it. When we should be applying wings to brands to let them soar, we’re instead applying bullet-proof vests. Perhaps our industry thinks the consumer is more interested in comfort and in concepts that are predictable and palatable.

Benetton is one of those companies that has a history of creating controversial campaigns. In the past, Benetton claimed a territory that they could own—a “cause” clearly related to their brand purpose: bringing people together—the United Colors of Benetton.

In the United Colours campaign of the late 80’s and early 90’s, the photographs and the stories they told were edgy, contentious, and a bit too shocking for some. For me, many of the images had something endearing about them, something that I could understand as a consumer. There was a rebelliousness about them that I found easily acceptable.

United Colours took great acts of courage to promote. It helped break stereotypes and encourage many of the positive humanitarian sentiments we have today. When Benetton hired and gave carte blanche to Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, they probably had no idea what genius and ground breaking work would take place. What followed were years of advertising that pushed social limits and brought to the lime light issues that many wanted to sweep under the rug. They did what was right in their eyes despite alienating some potential customers.

In 1990 Benetton produced posters of a priest kissing a nun; a bloody newborn baby; and a black stallion mounting a white mare. Other controversial ads featured a black woman breast feeding a white baby and an image of a real AIDS patient on his deathbed surrounded by a grieving family.

Since that time, Italy's largest clothing maker, with some 6,400 franchised stores in 120 countries, went through a period of sluggish sales, closed a number of their stores and struggled to remain relevant in the market.  They were urgently in need of being reinvigorated.

A few weeks ago, Benetton launched their new campaign “UnHate” and has once again thrown everything in the face of conventional wisdom. In it, Benetton has found something they believe will have enough impact to restore their fading image amongst consumers and be a stand-out in the fashion clutter.

Have they gone overboard this time, as many critics are saying? Are they confusing their new objectives with their historical brand story?  Though the UnHate campaign has its naysayers, I see powerful statements in the advertising fueled by truth and by reality—the realities of life.

The campaign is causing controversy and is upsetting countless thousands. Shock value? For sure. But they’re being noticed once again, which proves that:

  • People are hopelessly conservative.
  • Benetton is miles ahead of most of us.
  • Advertising in 2011 is still not a socially-acceptable outlet for wild imagination. Such imagination only inhabits the world of Fine Art.
  • Fantasy remains more popular than reality.

Nevertheless, I find the outrage against the UnHate campaign as amazingly ironic. At a time when social media is making everyone more aware of the issues of the day, you would think such commitment would be welcomed. Think again.

Benetton’s ads have reached beyond traditional media with people commenting and sometimes, vehemently criticising the campaign in podcasts, discussion groups, blogs, websites, video on demand, magazine, newspaper and web articles. It’s all over Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

The company says all the images are meant to combat hatred.  It’s Benetton’s hope that the controversial images will help create tolerance around the world.

Yet, their print campaign is creating a furor. In the campaign of digitally mocked-up portraits, we see U.S. President Obama kissing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; the Pope embracing Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb; Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel kissing French president Nicolas Sarkozy; Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas kissing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu; China's leader Hu Jintao kissing Barack Obama, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il kissing Lee Myung-bak, President of South Korea.

Much of the world seems to view the campaign as “exploitive” and “offensive”. Critics charge that it profits from the misfortunes of hatred and war.  But will it help to sell more of Benetton’s clothing? I am not certain. However, one thing I am certain of, is that the Benetton brand is suddenly an overnight  sensation. They know that great advertising disrupts, and they’ve run with it.

Early on, Benetton realized that assessing creative ideas is mostly about balancing risk: the risk of uncertainty and the risk of consequence. As a purveyor of rather inoffensive, if not overpriced clothes, Benetton has not forgotten how to get people to pay attention to their ads, and the ads have nothing to do with the stuff they sell.

The job of advertising is to get notice. For Benetton to spend all their advertising budget on typical fashion-style advertising, or explaining why their product is better than the competition, would be like throwing their money away. The route they’ve chosen quite smartly, is to make the UnHate ads look ‘Unadvertising’.

On the other hand, if you were to walk into any Benetton store, you won’t find clothing that is representational of their new UnHate campaign. Their clothing is mainstream and by no means remarkable. It’s not rebellious stuff, nothing controversial, that’s for certain.

I also like Benetton’s UnHate video on YouTube. Though it pales when compared to the controversial images used in the print/posters, the video aims to “bring people together.” The film by French director Laurent Chavez, tells of the precarious balance and complex interweaving between the drive to hate and the reasons to love.

Benetton has chosen what I believe to be a noble cause. Given the present worldwide moral crisis where hate, violence, crime, wars, conflict of ideologies, political or religious, are the rule of the day, UnHate makes us question seriously the progress of our modern world.

Benetton’s YouTube video shows people hugging and kissing. It’s about people opening their hearts. It’s about love and the acceptance of others, and the acceptance of our differences. It’s about human awakening. The video, as I noted earlier, pales in controversy when compared to the print/poster campaign, that’s for certain. For us ad folks, it serves well as an example of the real power of print.

You can view the video at:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qImJFg5dgTE

For Benetton, print has always been a powerhouse medium. For the company, awareness of the brand name is simply not enough. They want people to connect with the brand,  recognize themselves in it, and see it as aspirational.

Critics and marketers call the print campaign, which uses leaders-of-the-world-kissing, “a mismatch and a mistake” when compared to the video execution. Overall, they “hate” the campaign. They think that when the campaign has hit its peak and the wave is over, consumers will once again drop Benetton out-of-sight-out-of-mind. Time will tell.

Is UnHate a calculated risk? Will more people hate the campaign than UnHate it?

I have no problem with edgy communications. To quote Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about, was not being talked about”.  I have no issue if a campaign is shocking, or if it ruffles feathers and starts new conversation. Benetton is not pretending that the horrors of life do not exist. Each kiss we see reminds us of the

difficulties of war, of hatred, of the downgrade in peace and democracy, and that most of the world population still lives in misery, suffers from starvation, and absolutist regimes.

How then do the critics of the UnHate campaign mark Benetton as a company of “heretics”? Is it because Benetton dared to show the Pope, or President Obama, or Mahmoud Abbas kissing? Or are they being more visionary and hopeful than the rest of us? Benetton has smartly tapped into a strategic sweet-spot with the understanding that provocative advertising and social media can be powerful tools in connecting with consumers.

I also think Benetton has made a point to respect the consumers’ intelligence with an intelligent vision of peace for the world. Their approach has nothing to do with style or product—and everything to do with attitude and experience. They are expressing a sense of concern and the desire to connect—to be part of the world, good or bad, and to play a role in it.

UnHate puts them directly in opposition to the competition whose modus operandi is to create consumer needs that can only be satisfied when you buy their products and whose claims often have little to do with truth and authenticity. Benetton has once again, transformed themselves from a clothing manufacturer into a social force. Visionary? Bold? Brave? I think so.

The assumption that risk-taking is itself a selling tool is a disruption and departure from most marketing methods of the day. Just a few days ago, Benetton made the news again when the company was forced to pull one of its images featuring Pope Benedict XVI kissing a senior Egyptian imam on the lips after the Vatican denounced it as a “totally unacceptable” provocation.

Benetton claims the campaign of digitally-altered photos is aimed at fostering tolerance and 'global love'. Political and religious leaders kissing is 'symbolic of reconciliation - with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation. The photos are meant to stimulate reflection on how politics, faith and ideas, no matter how divergent, must still lead to dialogue and mediation.'

Pulling the controversial ad has only created more buzz for Benetton. It follows the self-evident truth that advertising that is ‘talked-about’ in the marketplace is exponentially more effective than that which is not.

Alessandro Benetton, deputy chairman of Benetton Group SpA and son of the founder of the family-controlled company, said of the campaign: 'It means not hating. In a moment of darkness, with the financial crisis, what's going on in North African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy.'

The company has also set up the UnHate Foundation, which seeks to contribute to the creation of a new culture of tolerance to combat hatred, building on Benetton’s underpinning values. It is a contribution the company sees as having a real impact on the international community, especially through social media. The Foundation will organise initiatives involving different stakeholders, from the new generations to the institutions, international organisations and NGOs, through to civil society. The Foundation also aims to be a think tank, attracting personalities and talents from the fields of culture, economy, law and politics, and people who have gone from simple citizens to leaders of movements, distinguishing themselves through their ideas and actions against the causes and effects of hatred.

Benetton has put itself right down on the street with the rest of us in the real world.

Their truth is our truth. And Benetton is pushing all the psychological buttons, allowing us to reconsider our hang-ups, our patterns of prejudice and hate, our belief systems and the rules by which we live. Should we not applaud Benetton and give them kudos for stepping out on the edge and causing us to take a harder look at ourselves and our world?

If the goal of an advertising campaign is get people to notice and talk about the company, then Benetton has surely succeeded. From Benetton’s perspective, ‘UnHate’ may lead to some well needed global warming.

For me, the only question that remains is how much ‘truth’ can we stand?

Mike Fromowitz

OCTANE

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