http://storify.com/edwardboches/the-swarm”>, when every news outlet, blogger and tweeter jumps on the story of the moment, it’s no surprise that on November 16, we saw thousands of Benetton-related headlines telling us that the “Vatican threatens legal action,” and “Benetton pulls pope-kissing ad.” After all, that was the day that all hell broke loose over Benetton’s new ad campaign featuring global leaders kissing each other.
But if you looked beyond the echo chamber of RTs and redundant posts there wasn’t much in the way of real analysis. Sure the Pope was PO’d. But was the campaign any good? Is the cause it supports worthy? Was the controversy a surprise or the objective of the campaign in the first place?
It strikes me these are all questions worth considering for those of us interested in branding, advertising and social media. So I thought I’d weigh in.
The Cause: UNHATE fits perfectly with Benetton’s history of social advocacy
These days it’s common for marketers to jump on the social cause bandwagon in an attempt to generate good will. But taking a stand and supporting causes has been part of Benetton’s DNA for decades. The brand has a long history of social responsibility (or in some cases advertising disguised as such). It’s run campaigns and launched programs to subvert stereotypes, protest war, fight famine and challenge the death penalty. There was even a campaign to encourage entrepreneurialism in Africa.
If you haven’t checked out Benetton’s new initiative, you should. Benetton’s in-house agency Fabrica (working with outside agency 72andSunny) didn’t just launch an ad campaign for the sake of generating buzz, it created the UNHATE foundation and introduced a series of programs it hopes will contribute to a culture of tolerance. The effort appears to be much more than lip service. It includes educational programs and support for international NGOs that teach tolerance, a Global Tolerance Index, efforts to promote human rights and support for art programs that bear witness or contrast hatred.
UNHATE may or may not be its biggest or best effort to date – it’s too soon to tell, despite the fact that SWARM thinking wants instant conclusions – but perhaps we should credit the Italian apparel maker; it chose both to speak out and to put resources behind a worthy cause and message.
(I did come across one face worth noting in writing this post: while Benetton is a brand that prides itself in social responsibility, it ranks rather poorly in certain related behavioral traits you’d expect the company to do well in, including carbon emissions, environmental policy and labor conditions.)
The Creative: Not the best effort
If the main job of a creative execution is to get noticed, then this campaign works brilliantly. But if we want to apply higher standards – taste, cleverness, originality – then the kissing campaign does not rank among Benetton’s best. Take a look at some of the United Colors of Benetton ads of the past. The integrated family. The vials of leaders’ blood, all of it the same color. The white baby nursing from a black breast. The images were not only startling, but less expected. There’s something about the kissing joke that feels a little too easy and obvious.
Then again, it does give a nod to another great Benetton kissing ad featuring a priest and a nun, produced 20 years ago. I suppose that for the few of us familiar with Benetton’s history you could argue it’s an inside joke.
We all know it’s easier to be critical than to come up with a better idea yourself, but it doesn’t help that Oliviero Toscani, the photographer who created the most famous Benetton ad images slammed the campaign, calling it “pathetic and the product of a beginner’s art class.” Ouch.
On another note, the website is pretty good. It’s clean, well designed, easy to navigate and invites participation via the Kiss Wall. Perhaps what this effort and campaign really needs is just some time.
The Controversy: Intentional or accidental?
If you want your next ad campaign to generate millions of media impressions just add a picture of the Pope in a compromising position. Search “Benetton Pope” and you get pages and pages of coverage. It’s hard to imagine a better viral scenario. The cynical among us have already ventured that the entire campaign was created for no other reason to generate press coverage.
It’s unlikely that Benetton will admit whether or not they sought such a reaction, but it’s hard to imagine it didn’t cross their mind to expect comments like Father Federico Lombardi’s declaration that the doctored photo exhibited “a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offense against the sentiments of the faithful and a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules of respect for people in order to attract attention through provocation.”
Marketers often find themselves deluged by unexpected reaction, whether in response to a calculated risk or a innocent mistake. Just witness Qantas’s #qantasluxury fiasco yesterday. But in Benetton’s case the brand had to know from past experience. In response to Benetton’s Death Row ads in 2000 Sears removed all Benetton products from its stores and terminated its contract with the company.
Last year Benetton net income fell 33 percent, a fact Benetton attributed to the economy. Perhaps a little free publicity and controversy is just what the brand needs to jump start business and stay top of mind.
It may not be a strategy for all brands, but it seems to work over and over again for the Italian company.
- Is UNHATE a good cause? Or is it too generic? Would it be better to choose a cause that would generate customer participation more meaningful than posts to a kissing wall?
- Do you think the work rivals the Benetton campaigns of the past, particularly those photographed by Toscani Olivieri?
- Is generating controversy a smart marketing tactic? Is it too risky? Could more brands take advantage of it?
Please share your thoughts. If you are a teacher, consider using this as a topic and discussion guide.
The SWARM is my new term for the digital echo chamber we live in. It’s an acronym for the Social Wave Amplified by Repetitive Media. We see it all the time. A story breaks — maybe in the traditional press, maybe online, maybe on Twitter — and in order to be part of the story bloggers, tweeters, and every one with a presence in social media feels compelled to link, RT or somehow declare they’re in the know, creating The SWARM. If you like this acronym, feel free to use it as a hashtag. If you want to link back to its original explanation here, you can do that, too.
Thanks for stopping by.
I am adding this video after the fact. Creativity Magazine recap of the campaign in its five best of November 23. A good perspective on the comprehensiveness of the effort.