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  • Writer's pictureLuella Schmidt

Remembering the 90s and the Benetton ads

Updated: Feb 4, 2023

Do you remember the “United Colors of Benetton” advertising campaign? Benetton was the first company to eliminate pictures of its products entirely from its ad campaigns. Over the years they used powerful images of social issues like environmental disasters, terrorism, and racism.

The ad above is from 1991, called “Family of the Future”. I love the way the blanket enfolds them all in comfort and safety but their faces seem to hold anxiety. Or maybe that’s my own anxiety.

This photo was one of many that spawned outrage and conversations, along with many social sciences and communications papers. Benetton was famous for pushing the limits with their advertising. They often received death threats and boycotts.

Oliviero Toscani is the photographer/artist who designed the campaigns from 1982 to 2000. In 1992, he included this photo by Therese Frare in one of his campaigns. This is David Kirby dying of AIDS, surrounded by his grieving family.

When the photo was published, it shocked the country and forced us to reveal our humanity around the tragedy of AIDS, in many ways for the first time. It was a transformational moment.

Benetton’s director of communications said of this picture, "We seized an opportunity to publicize AIDS to create greater compassion. Would people rather have us show pretty girls in sweaters?"

People accused Benetton of exploiting Kirby’s family, but the family wanted the exposure, grateful for the increased awareness and compassion the photo evoked. The Catholic Church was offended, as per usual.

Another photo from that campaign:

Viewers of this ad can watch themselves making assumptions. Many assumed the black man was a criminal and the white man was law enforcement, especially in the US.

Many called out the picture as openly racist, while at the same time fascist groups in France threw a tear gas grenade into a Benetton shop over it.

Of course, Benetton became a household name, whether you liked their products or not, which was the whole point.

For two years, Toscani traveled to several prisons and took portraits of prisoners from death row. This campaign was called "We On Death Row”.

The reaction to this campaign seems to have been the worst. Pennsylvania Attorney general called for a nationwide boycott of Benetton, as did California’s Assembly. Missouri sued, saying that Benetton misrepresented the reason for gaining access to the prisoners.

A group called “Parents of Murdered Children” staged a protest outside Sears headquarters and the company dropped Benetton goods almost immediately. Numerous other stores cleared Benetton from their shelves and Toscani stopped working for Benetton shortly after this.

Benetton’s press release about this campaign said: “The campaign is about the death penalty. Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral consideration, this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment, so that no one around the world, will consider the death penalty neither as a distant problem nor as news that occasionally appear on TV.”

Toscani’s reaction to the uproar: "I don't regret campaigning for something that is in the Ten Commandments. Anything that is at all interesting in our society is going to produce an interesting reaction."

I couldn’t seem to stop thinking about this campaign this week. Sometimes it feels like we, as humans, never seem to evolve or improve or transform as quickly as I want us to. But then looking at these ads - these were 30 years ago. We have come a long way. Most of us are decent. I think right now the worst people in our world just have the biggest megaphones. A hit dog will holler.

This random deep dive was inspired by White Girls by Hilton Als, which is an incredible book of essays that I’m savoring.

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