PRINT May 1992


Violence at Benetton

BENETTON, THE ITALIAN SPORTSWEAR GIANT and advertising renegade, has created another ruckus with one of its socially conscious and consciously outrageous ad campaigns. In March it kicked off its spring and summer advertising in the U.S. with a series of three photojournalistic images that came straight from the hard-news pages of the daily papers, provoking a spasm of mostly negative press. Premiering in Vanity Fair and Vogue, the double-page images showed a car exploding into flames on an Italian street (presumably from a detonated car bomb), a ship laden with Albanian refugees trying to enter Italy to escape political violence at home, and an American family gathered around a son who is about to die of AIDS. Peter Fressola, director of communications for Benetton in North America, says that the controversy surrounding the campaign is “unprecedented in our experience, and probably in apparel advertising and maybe in advertising in general.”1 The uproar started before the campaign even appeared: several British magazines refused to run the ads, and Fressola says the British board that controls advertising has “virtually banned” the AIDS image in England. The campaign has run into similar problems in France, but has been accepted by all American magazines with which Benetton does business.

The thrust of the criticism, which devolves mainly upon the AIDS image, is on the one hand that its use by Benetton is exploitative, cynical, and offensive, and on the other that this is no way to sell sweaters. “We’ve been saying all along that our intention is not to sell sweaters,” Fressola says heatedly. “We’re not that stupid. We’re doing corporate communication. We’re sponsoring these images in order to change people’s minds and create compassion around social issues. We think of it as art with a social message.” He goes on to point out that the Benetton logo imprinted on the photographs has especially aroused ire, but that “exhibitions of controversial images are sponsored by business and corporations all the time.”

Fressola’s reasoning raises obvious objections. Among the most prominent: business does not in fact support controversial images but safe images, an exhibition is a different sort of animal from an advertising campaign, and corporate logos are usually placed next to the images, not right on them, though that might be drawing too fine a point. Speaking as a corporate representative, Fressola is no doubt accurately portraying how the corporate world thinks of its art support: as an eye-catching backdrop for its corporate identity. The difference here is that Benetton chooses the lowly advertising page in upscale magazines to make its point, rather than the precious walls of a museum.

But disagreements with Benetton’s strategy can’t be confined to its use of the AIDS image. Fressola says Benetton took the unusual step of running three pictures together, instead of the usual one, in order to provide a greater “context” for the ad. By not showing the AIDS picture alone, but by grouping it with other images, he says Benetton wanted to indicate that it is interested not in bringing attention to itself by using one sensationalizing image, but in bringing attention to a spectrum of social and political problems. Given the extensive work that’s been done on the politics of representation, this assertion can only be categorized as studiously naive.

But the campaign is anything but naive. Taken as a whole, it can be seen as an ingenious attempt symbolically to appropriate, tame, and control the alarming contemporary political events that are disrupting the psychic drives carefully nurtured for decades by public relations and advertising. Worldwide political crises have spilled over into our daily lives. One-on-one violence and upper-echelon thievery are no longer just the distant subjects of the news. People are being shot in our neighborhoods; our tax dollars will pay for the massive frauds perpetrated by white men who once were hailed as American geniuses of capitalism. We begin to feel not only that consumption will not provide the gratification we have been programmed to hope for but that our ability to continue consuming is at an end. In this context, Benetton is acknowledging a new level of the obsolescence advertising was invented to promote. It is not only an obsolescence of goods but of individuals, ethnic groups, and even entire societies.

Despite Benetton’s officially stated liberal aims, the company is in fact engaged in marketing what Stuart Ewen has called “history as style.” Ewen has pointed out how the decade of the 1960s has been reduced to a “pulsating parade of provocative images, a collage of familiar fragments.” Black was beautiful, “women had their own cigarette,” and Andy Warhol and Mary Quant were conflated with other “heroes” such as Malcolm X and Twiggy. “As style becomes a rendition of social history,” Ewen writes, “it silently and ineluctably transforms that history from a process of human conflicts and motivations, an engagement between social interests and forces, into a market mechanism, a fashion show.2

In the ’90s, we know we don’t have to wait thirty years for a newsworthy epoch to become marketable nostalgia. Nor does the market have that kind of time. Desperate refugees, urban violence, and AIDS are so disruptive of the orderly flow of business that they need to be immediately defused and diffused, in Dick Hebdige’s terms, into the larger picture of commerce as usual. Denial in the service of upbeat consumerism is no longer a workable strategy as we are continually overwhelmed by disturbing and even cataclysmic events.

By stripping news images of their context, Benetton wants to render them icons of universal suffering. Captionless and with no originary information provided, the images seem like snippets from a rock video or movie. Indeed, the “waste” that is a predominant feature in each photograph is comparable to the waste produced on a grand scale in mass entertainment. Of the well-worn, cliché car-chase, Ewen argues that it “leaves total material ruin in its wake. Automobiles tumble over cliffs, smashing in flames; house and store fronts are demolished in an explosive spray of splinters and shards; innocent bystanders are ‘wasted.’”3 In the Benetton ads the waste that is shown is “real,” but in the reframing and recontextualizing it becomes theatrical. The burning car, the refugees, the dying man and grieving family are united as distant, inevitable, terrible, but somehow fascinating spectacles of waste.

It is not quite correct to say that the images do not have captions, however. Each of them bears a message from Benetton printed in small type below the corporate logo: “Our spring/summer 1992 edition of Colors magazine is now available.” An 800 number is added for calling convenience. Colors is one of the new breed of clothing catalogues/public relations pieces that clothiers pioneered in the 1980s. Paralleling and introducing seasonal style changes, the catalogues promote the superior esthetic visions of individual designers and companies. Benetton’s Colors is unique in that half of it is organized into article-type layouts on various human-interest topics. The other half is a clothing catalogue.

The fine print on the three pictures, substituting a notice of seasonal style change for informational captions, provides the final strategy that “defuses” and “diffuses” the dire nature of the subjects. The car bomb, the refugees, the dying man become the occasion to consider not the social and political relations that have caused the detonation, the flight, the death, but the social and esthetic relations that make updated fashion a necessity and a consolation of contemporary life. New clothes in themselves connote the security of the mundane. In whatever way the campaign is analyzed, the company has achieved its goal: extensive press. Along with Hollywood and Leo Castelli, Benetton can say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator who lives in New York. She is senior editor at American Photo, and a frequent contributor to Artforum.



1. All quotations of Peter Fressola are from a telephone interview with the author.

2. Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988, pp. 257, 248.

3. Ibid., p. 241.