United colours of hate

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
November 18, 2011 /

Click here to view original /

Once upon a time, in the days before gratuitous copycats and viral marketing, Benetton ads achieved what the industry dubs “cut-through”.

From their racial rainbows, still-soggy newborns and blood-stained military uniforms, Benetton have been using controversy to flog fashion since the 80s.

It therefore should come as no surprise that amidst flagging sales and the administrators waiting in the wings, that they’re at it again. Think Brezhnev/Honeckeron on the Berlin Wall only with the likes of Obama and Sarzoky. Sharing a computer-generated snog and daring to shock our sensibilities. It’s called the Unhate campaign and it’s as predictable as Benetton’s impending closing down sale.

In light of the financial quagmire plaguing most of Europe, Benetton’s 2011 advertising efforts don’t look edgy, don’t look cool, don’t exploit any Zeitgeist. They look tired. Tired and so incredibly desperate. The Italian rag house look like they’re limping down the path that every dying brand tries before they stop honouring gift cards: a controversial campaign to get the usual suspects all fired up and to earn some free press in the process.

And on cue, the Vatican has demanded fig leaves cover the dirty bits. And on cue the withdrawals and bans have panned out as planned. And Benetton will just keep its fingers-crossed hoping some of this hullabaloo leads to misguided youth entering their stores.

Benetton of course, plead complete innocence: their objective, allegedly, “was solely to battle the culture of hate in all its form.” The company laughs in the face of sales. Apparently it’s all about love and freedom and harmony. About creating a dialogue.

Marketing theorists have long been fascinated by Benetton’s tactics. Often noting that instead of delivering real political or social messages, the company’s ambiguous ads suggest audiences ask questions. To dare ask what are our politics; what do we value; why are we shocked?

Right now I’m looking at an ad showing the Pope kissing an imam, and asking a) does anyone still buy Benetton? b) is unhate a real world? and c) who/what exactly am I supposed to be unhating?

My politics leads me to encourage anyone to go forth and kiss whoever will accept their puckered lips. Forcing people however – with the aid of Photoshop – to engage in a gesture so intimate, and one which would never play out in real life – and I don’t feel unhateful, I don’t feel entertained or aroused or politically vindicated. Instead, I feel my nostrils flare slightly and my brow furrow.

The whole thing is perverse. And not in a good or kinky way.

The ads don’t show unity. Instead, they present a laundry list of reasons why people remain divided through the cheap and nasty sex-sells motif.

Just how much booze did the focus group drink before gesturing to a Berlusconi/Merkel liplock and claiming, yep, that image changes the way I feel about politics/sexuality/austerity measures? Just how drunk did someone need to be before dribbling onto the Netanyahu/Abbas snapshot and garbling, “Finally! An end to conflict in the Middle East!”?

These ads don’t encourage tolerance, don’t urge us to rethink our prejudices; hell, they don’t even make any sense. Instead, they use the intimacy of a lip-kiss to allude to renegade sexual couplings and in turn make the ludicrous coupling a laughing stock at best, an image of gross offense at worse. This does nothing for religious tolerance, political harmony or homosexual politics and everything to fuel hate mongering.

For me, hate is active, it takes time and effort and a penchant for talk-back radio. So of course, I don’t hate Benetton. After all, they’re just trying to peddle their overpriced wares in a saturated marketplace. But I do quite hate controversy for controversy’s sake. Particularly when it’s so blatantly mean-spirited.

© Lauren Rosewarne