It is ironic that corporate advertising, a medium that ought to bestow the organizations behind branded products with their own individual personalities, almost always has the exact opposite effect. Even casual scrutiny of the ad pages of Forbes or Business Week, or a couple of hours spent in front of a television set on Sunday morning, reveals the homogenizing effect of corporate advertising.
While marketers are constantly seeking to make their brands seem unique, to bestow them with a personality, those charged with marketing the corporate reputation seem to strive for the opposite result: they appear determined to show that all corporations are essentially the same faceless (but benevolent) bureaucracies.
Distilled to their basics, corporate ads tell us that their subjects are reliable but at the same time flexible, diversified but focused, ahead of the competition but deeply traditional, global but patriotically American, growth-oriented but environmentally friendly, nurturing towards employees but fanatically productive, profitable but compassionate.
In the realm of corporate advertising, few companies stand out from this generic sameness, but Benetton, a $1.7 billion clothing manufacturer and retailer headquartered in Italy, is one. Its advertising—directed at consumers but focusing on the company and its values rather than on product—is perhaps the most colorful (in several senses of the word) and controversial of any in America.
The "United Colors of Benetton" campaign began peacefully enough in 1984 with an ad in the tradition of Coca-Cola and others, showing groups of laughing, jumping youngsters of various ethnic backgrounds. In 1985 the campaign developed by alluding to historical conflicts, showing Soviets and Americans, Germans and Israelis, Greeks and Turks side by side.
It was not until 1989, however, that the ads began to deal with sensitive racial themes in a way that attracted criticism. One image showed two men, one black and one white, handcuffed together; another showed a black woman nursing a white baby. While the latter ad won awards in the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Italy and Austria, it was withdrawn in the U.S. after African-American groups protested its echoes of slavery.
Since then, Benetton has managed to offend various other special interests. An ad featuring inflated pastel-colored condoms was rejected by several women's magazines; another showing a cemetery of white crosses and a lone Star of David appeared during the Gulf War and was interpreted by some as an implication that the coalition was acting as an agent of Israel; another, depicting a nun and priest in a decidedly non-platonic kiss, angered Catholics; yet another, of a white child with halo and a black child with its hair cut in the shape of Satanic horns, drew renewed charges of racial insensitivity.
"Benetton's advertising strategy is to realize a campaign that can communicate the same message all over the world," says Peter Fressola, the company director of communications in New York. "The key element was the decision to utilize the same campaign all over the world, highlighting the fact that the shops, the products and the philosophy of the company are uniform worldwide."
Benetton argues that its ads address major social issues—AIDS, racial harmony and environmental concerns—and that its images are designed to be provocative but not offensive. Says Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer who has created all of the company's advertising since 1984: "We are a little bit in advance of everyone, not by what we say, but by using advertising as a means of communication on social issues."
Toscani says the nun and priest kissing was not supposed to be scandalous, but "the manifestation of a pure and human sentiment that repels perceived ideas" and that the picture of the angelic white child and its devilish black counterpart was designed to chide racial stereotyping through a tongue-in-cheek approach.
(It is interesting to note that Benetton does not use an advertising agency to create its ads, although J. Walter Thompson handles media placement. Toscani says advertising agencies are programmed to come up with the conventional and that they "spend millions and millions to say nothing." Nor does the company have a PR agency of record in the United States.)
The mass of faceless corporations may look at Benetton advertising and the controversy it attracts and retreat even-further into highprofile anonymity; others may argue that while Benetton knows what it wants to communicate, its message is not always received as clearly as it might be; a few are clearly beginning to draw lessons from Benetton's success.
Benetton, meanwhile, is preparing to develop its campaign in a new direction, with the publication this month of a new magazine, Colors. The first issue, characteristically, will use one of Benetton's newest ads as its cover. The ad shows a newborn baby, umbilical cord still attached, and has already been rejected by magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Essence, Elle and Child.
"In many ways the magazine is a continuation of our advertising strategy," says Peter Fressola. "We had produced a catalog that was distributed through our stores, and this seemed a logical extension, as well as an opportunity to articulate more explicitly what the Benetton world view is."
Half a million copies of the 134-page debut issue have been printed, in five languages, and they will be distributed through the company's 6300 retail stores in almost 100 countries. The front portion of each magazine will contain editorial articles—none of which will deal with Benetton or its products—while the back portion will read something like a Ben & Jerry's annual report, detailing the company's philosophy, its sponsorship activities and its advertising, perhaps aiming to dispel some of the misunderstandings that have surrounded Benetton advertising.
Colors was designed by Toscani and M & Company, a New York graphic design firm.
Editorial in the first issue includes a map of the world, with various people from various points on the map answering the question: "What are you doing right now?" There is an article on New York, called "City of Tribes", which looks at groups of people from homosexual police officers to the Black Girls' Coalition to the cast of the transvestite movie Paris Is Burning. Another piece looks at how people all over the world are working to solve major global problems in their own communities; another examines the major medical advances made possible by botanical discoveries in the rain forests.
"The unique thing about this magazine is that the editorial is not directed or approved by anyone from the company," says Fressola. "We did not even know what the editorial content was going to be until it was presented to [founder and president] Luicano Benetton in Italy. We are funding this venture, providing an opportunity for a number of creative and concerned people to produce their dream magazine."
That this magazine does articulate Benetton's world view more explicitly may be in part an acknowledgement that Olivieri Toscani is right when he says Benetton's attempts to communicate on social issues through visual images in advertising is ahead of its time, that a more detailed explanation is needed. Within the public relations community, there is a sense that the company needs to do more.
"I think Benetton is on the cutting edge of social issues involvement," says one PR agency head, who declined to be identified. "I think they have really made an effort to stand out from the crowd and to stand for something, and if some people have been offended I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. But I think it is unfortunate if the message is being misinterpreted, and in some cases it is."
An African-American PR professional puts it more succinctly: "I think that being color blind is a noble objective, but color blindness in America means being blind to some major social problems. Maybe Benetton could use a minority PR agency."
Fressola admits that not everyone "gets it". But he says those who do more than outweigh the very vocal minority that don't.
"Every day I get letters asking whether Benetton is interested in sponsoring various cause-related activities, and all the letters start the same way: `Due to Benetton's well-known position on social issues and multi-culturalism, we believe we have a great opportunity for you.' Teachers call us to ask if they can use our images in the classroom, and the United Colors of Benetton has become a catch phrase for pluralism and diversity."
He cites an ad program for the ASPCA which, he says, borrows Benetton imagery, and articles in the New York Times describing the staff of a particular restaurant as looking like "a United Colors of Benetton ad."
There seems little doubt that despite some missteps and despite the controversy (or perhaps because of it, since every time an ad is banned stories appear in the New York Times, The Wall Street journal and The Economist) most people know what Benetton believes in, and know that the company is no ordinary corporation.
Even critics have been sure to acknowledge that Benetton's heart is in the right place, as the AntiDefamation League of B'nai B'rith was when it attacked the priest and nun ad for "trivializing, mocking, profaning and offending religious values" while applauding the company's efforts "to promote harmony and understanding."
Meanwhile, the company continues to grow and to profit. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Benetton had 1990 revenues of $1.79 billion—up 24% on 1989—and a gross profit margin of 36%. The company's stock is quoted on five international exchanges. And the ad budget, despite all the controversy, is a mere $78 million worldwide and not even among the top 40 apparel marketers in the United States.