Benetton Promotional Campaigns – Are they Ethical?
Benetton Group S.p.A. (Benetton), a leading Italian clothing company, is famous, or rather, infamous for its outrageous promotional campaigns. Benetton was founded by the brothers Luciano Benetton, Gilberto Benetton, Carlo Benetton, and their sister Giuliana Benetton in Ponzano Veneto, Italy in 1965.The Benetton family initially designed and sold knitwear and gradually diversified into various businesses. As of 2014, Benetton’s businesses included casual wear, sports wear, and footwear for women, men, and children. It also sold accessories, kitchen accessories, baby products, watches, perfumes, etc. Benetton sold its products under the brands United Colors of Benetton, Under Colors of Benetton, Sisley, Playlife, and Killer Loop. Benetton belonged to Ediozone Holding, the holding company of the Benetton family. By 2014, Benetton operated in over 120 countries, with a retail network of around 5000 stores worldwide.
Until 1984, Benetton followed traditional advertising to promote its products. However, the advent of Oliviero Toscani (Toscani) as the creative director of Benetton saw a makeover of the company’s promotional campaigns. Benetton started featuring ads that propagated social responsibility rather than promoting the company’s products. Toscani launched the “All the World’s Colors” campaign. It was after this ad campaign that the company began using its trademark brand United Colors of Benetton. The ad featured six children belonging to different races wearing ethnic clothing. The promotional campaign focused on racial equality, peace, and brotherhood. Benetton promoted this campaign in 14 countries. The company received rave reviews and awards for the ad. However, in some of the conservative countries (of that time) like South Africa, publishing of the ad was banned. Under the guidance of Toscani, Benetton continued to launch various advertisements that focused on social causes such as racism, child labor, AIDS, etc. The unique feature of the ads was that they featured only the Benetton logo and contained no information regarding the company and its products. As a result of this ad campaigning, Benetton became a popular brand worldwide.
However, Benetton’s ads portrayed graphics and images that were shocking, provocative, and controversial. Some of the posters like a newborn child covered with blood, dying AIDS patients (see above), a priest kissing a nun, etc., hurt the emotions of a large section of society. Benetton’s ads were also slammed by critics who charged that they were purely intended to grab the attention of the public.
During this time, Benetton had difficulty in coping with its controversial image, especially in America. Many of the retail store owners in the US and other countries like Germany blamed the company’s distasteful advertising for dropping sales. The company received a major blow as the number of stores selling Benetton merchandise began decreasing in the US. Benetton, which functioned with over 600 stores at one point of time, now had less than 200 stores in the US. At one point, Benetton entered into a proposed tie-up with Sears to sell its merchandise. Benetton hoped to regain its position in America with the help of Sears’ 800 stores spread across the country. However, the deal did not materialize as the retail store company pulled out of the agreement, with Benetton getting entangled in the ‘death row controversy’.
At that time, Benetton released an ad campaign condemning ‘capital punishment’. The company released a documentary in the Talk magazine on 26 prisoners from Missouri, USA, due to receive the death penalty. The 90-page documentary titled “We on death row” contained interviews with all the 26 prisoners, although it did not provide the details of the crimes committed by them. The company also followed up with an ad campaign featuring the photos of some of the prisoners with the headline “Looking Death in the Face”. The campaign kicked up a controversy in the US as a large portion of the American population supported capital punishment. Benetton was charged with glamorizing the prisoners by camouflaging the crimes they had committed.
The campaign also caused a lot of heartache and anger among the relatives of the victims (of the convicts who appeared in the ad campaign). They felt that Benetton was being indifferent to the sufferings of the victims. Benetton paid a donation of US $ 50,000 to the Missouri Crime Victims’ Fund. This was done as a part of the company’s agreement with the State of Missouri to settle an ongoing legal battle regarding the ‘death row controversy’. Benetton also sent letters of regret to the families of the victims. Following this incident, Toscani left Benetton. However, Benetton refused to pull back its advertising campaign. According to the company, the campaign only disapproved of the death penalty and did not mean to be immune to the sufferings of the victims.
A few years later, the US-based People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) raised a campaign against Benetton for using Australian wool in their knitwear. In Australia, some farmers followed a method called mulesing to snip the wool off the sheep’s body. This process caused a lot of pain to the sheep. PETA requested apparel companies like Benetton, Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew, New Look, etc., who used Australian wool in their garments to stop purchasing wool from Australia. However, Benetton did not heed their request. In fact, it was the only company that refused to boycott Australian wool. To express its displeasure, PETA set up huge billboards in the US outside Benetton stores. The billboards contained graphic images of mutilated sheep with the tag line ‘Benetton Baaad for Sheep’.
Responding to the criticism through a press release, Benetton stated that though the company’s Australian wool came from producers following the mulesing technique, this practice was necessary to avoid the death of millions of sheep. Benetton also expressed the opinion that the allegations levied against it by PETA were unjust. However, analysts felt that Benetton’s move was not the right one and said it only served to portray that the company was not as socially responsible as its promotional campaigns depicted it to be.
1. Was Benetton right in depicting controversial ad campaigns for social causes? Justify your stand.
2. Benetton was active in taking up social responsibility. However, the company refused to adhere to requests made by PETA to boycott Australian wool. Comment on the company’s ethical practice.
3. Discuss the pros and cons of creating ad campaigns around social causes.
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