Abstract Images In Benetton Ads Evoke Strong Reactions

August 19, 1991|By Genevieve Buck | Genevieve Buck,Chicago Tribune


A newborn baby with its umbilical cord still attached, a priest and a nun kissing, an angelic-looking white child hugging a black child with a semblance of horns, leaves floating in a sea of oil, a zebra and a parrot, and a roll of white toilet paper are the six images that form Benetton's fall advertising campaign.

Forget about the leaves, the zebra with the parrot and even the toilet paper for the time being. It's the baby and those cute kids that are bringing the bags of mail to Benetton's headquarters and causing its 800 number to go bonkers. And who knows what might happen when Rolling Stone's November issue comes out with the priest and nun kissing. But, then, Rolling Stone's audience might not object at all to what Benetton describes as something "not intended as a controversial scandal but rather the affirmation of pure human sentiment."

But, some people who have seen the newborn ad in the August issues of Self and Vogue and the little girl and boy ad in the August issues of Parenting and Seventeen are indeed objecting.

At this point, it's the newborn that's most controversial. "Disgusting" is the word used most often by those who've been calling and writing to express their views about the photo of the newborn, according to Peter Fressola, director of communications at Benetton of North America in New York City. "And I find that very curious. I can respect the opinions of those who say the photo is not appropriate because childbirth is a private affair. But, the miracle of birth 'disgusting'?"

Mr. Fressola says the controversy "is not unexpected. It's a strong, arresting image. And whenever you advertise in a compelling or provocative way, you open yourself up to criticism. We have generated hate mail from a bigoted section of the population in the past," he said, referring to the '89 and '90 campaigns themed to black and white equality, especially the image showing two men, one black and one white, handcuffed together.

But, the current campaign will definitely surpass previous ones in arousing reactions. According to Mr. Fressola, there are no phone/mail figures available because reactions are "coming in all the time" and the campaign is really just getting under way. (The children's picture will also run in September Elle and October Cosmopolitan; the newborn will run again in December Parenting. YM -- which stands for Young and Modern -- and Self turned down the priest/nun ad.)

Salespeople in local Benetton stores say they haven't received any comments -- positive or negative -- from customers.

"We haven't had any reaction yet," said Suzanne Schmidt, assistant manager for Benetton in Owings Mills Mall. "Our manager showed us all the [newborn] ad in Vogue just so we'd know about it, but so far we haven't had any customers say anything."

According to Mr. Fressola, it's difficult to really assess reaction to such a campaign because the letters and mail "don't represent a cross-section. Those who will not like something are far more likely to respond than those who like it." Age and sex of respondents are also hard to determine but Mr. Fressola takes a stab, saying older people, more often women, probably object most.

However, reactions to Benetton ads are not always negative -- why would they keep on doing them otherwise? Even though the ads don't show clothing they have been "incredibly successful in making Benetton a household name," says Mr. Fressola, citing young people, educators, health clinics and the advertising communities among those who laud the firm's ads. Conceived and photographed by the highly regarded Oliviero Toscani, the ads are designed to promote multicultural awareness. They're a symbolic way of communicating that Benetton stands for color, literally, as well as the many colors of the people of the 93 countries of the world where it does business.

Mr. Fressola does admit this fall's images are "more abstract" than in the past. "The meanings can get lost on people who react on a visceral level. They miss the irony."

And, for those who just might miss the point of the newborn? "It's meant to express the positive potentiality of new life." The children? "By showing a racial stereotype, it dispels that racial stereotype." And the priest kissing the nun? "It shows the universal value of love, which transcends taboos and conventions."

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