Three ways to look at Benetton: the cause, the creative, the controversy
In The Age of 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.
How can the campaign suck? You're commenting about it, this post has been written, surely that's exactly the kind of coverage and discussion they want?
Charlotte74 I don't believe I ever said it sucked. I simply suggested that the initial coverage and attention, while valuable PR, was totally superficial and that I would add some perspective.
Great topic, post and comments. My two cents; the new campaign sucks. The photos look like stock, the images are contrived (and FAKE?) and fail to make any sort of point that is fresh and, worst of all, fail to make use of the product. Damn, the Toscani work made the product the star and dramatized it with stories right out of everyday life photographed with deep love. The original work captivated me for its beauty and its truth -- and, because I'm in advertising, the fact that it made the product central (call me old fashioned but the product matters, especially in categories where there is a visible product, unlike, say, telecom). The original work stood out, too, because it showed you what was happening the real the world, the coming together of people of all different races and mindsets, and did it in a way that was hard to hate. It was "unhate" without saying it. Show don't tell, right? Bad job, Benetton, bad job.
edwardboches What may be worth considering in this analysis is if, in fact, this campaign was generated out of Fabrica, the cultural context of Italy and the Catholic Church and how that relationship figures into this execution. In the Epicenter of Catholicism, the presence of the church, colors the air and opens the door to a more provocative dialogue. A dialogue that is very casual and both embraces and rejects with ease the provincialism of the church. This, I think, was one of the core drivers of the success of Toscani's work. And while the intent of this image seems only to shock, it eventually may go beyond provocative, to demand more of us over time as the it looses its bite and we are left to consider the fallibility in all of us and in so doing -- unhate.
That bit of open minded rationalizing out of the way, I think the work is a blunt attempt to ape the earlier work and lacks the depth, nuance and sophisticated wink I once associated with the brand.
But it did attract the SWARM and that SWARM can sting.
GuyMastrion@gmastrion Great comment: this rings as a perfect assessment "a blunt attempt to ape the earlier work and lacks the depth, nuance and sophisticated wink I once associated with the brand."
Well, I guess I'm glad that you started a conversation around this. It's interesting for me to read the comments.
I'm a http://www.fabrica.it alum . While I was there in the new media dept. I had the opportunity to work on the digital version of COLORS magazine and study under Oliviero. I am not surprised at all that Oliviero called this campaign"pathetic". I totally agree with him. This campaign looks like it came out of his trash can. It's a weak attempt at gaining mindshare through iconclastic imagery and nothing else. At Fabrica we used to have crit sessions on Fridays where everybody had to submit a composition for La Venerdi. If Toscani liked it he would have it published in the magazine. Every week someone would submit an image much like the the images in the unhate campaign and he would shred it.
"What are you you trying to say that hasn't been said? This is shit and it's boring."
The reason Toscani's early work hit the mark was that it had a meaning that was deeper than the iconoclasm. It celebrated ethnicity & diversity wich resonated in the "united colors" approach. That approach spoke back to the product which was all about the celebration of color. That was the magic. The images also had a deep resonance with social issues and pushed the extreme juxtaposition of diversity thus in turn it became it's own PR machine. It reinforced an emotional connection between the way people wanted to think and the clothes became a mark of openness, tolerance and fashion forward thinking.
This unhate campaign has none of that. It's only reason for being is to to induce the SWARM in this 24/7 media centric world. Unlike the old work, this unhate campaign got spit out as fast as it got sucked up and now represents only a speed bump in the fashion world as the trending chart confirms. The intrinsic failure of this campaign is that it's so easy to dismiss after the headline.
edwardboches Where did you see that FABRICA had a role in this? I haven't found anything online that says they did. FABRICA is funded by Benetton but also by design has a great amount of autonomy from it and doesn't normally do it's major campaigns.
ed_flynn_ This is awesome. Had no idea you ever worked with him and with Fabrica. I got the Fabrica confirmation from the folks at 72andsunny. I emailed them as well but never heard back. Perhaps they did the website and not the ad executions. Not sure, just know that it was a partnership with the inside and outside agencies.
edwardboches My time at Fabrica was great. It completely changed my creative perspective, the way I view the world and how people communicate. I would recco it to any young creative. It's a truly amazing experience. As far as my interactions with Toscani... it was always pretty crazy. He was such a larger than life person and I was straight out of art school with too much new media snot on my nose. He was soo bombastic that I kind of dismissed him as just crazy at the time. Luckily though I have a pretty good memory and as I've moved through the ad biz I remember a bunch of the things he said that now totally make sense to me. The way he talked about storytelling has become pretty foundational for how I try to attack experiential problems.
Yes to the “unhate” idea and foundation. Yes to choosing a side and going hard. But the real problem for me is that unlike Toscani’s work, it’s not beautiful. It does nothing for me in terms of wanting their clothes, whereas the other ones do. Benetton does still sell clothes, right? Re: SWARM, I’m resisting another acronym but will likely use it to be part of the story.
eloch Agree on the beauty. And good point on the connection of that beauty to the clothing. There was an aesthetic to the older campaigns that had a synergy with the fashion. Perhaps not in the Death Row campaign, but definitely in some of the best Toscani work like the priest and nun shown here. There was also the wit and the charm, which are also attributes that can extend to the brand.
Creative execution aside, this campaign has substance beyond the print and has real relevance with all going on in the world today. But after the swarm dies down, what is the marketing value? As Ed said, maybe it needs time to grow legs. Much depends on how the campaign is extended and how they leverage the foundation. A long runway idea that needs to bake?
Great post. I love the idea of the social media SWARM. I wonder how much things like trending topics have to do with building the SWARM factor as well-ie do things build exponentially as we see they're popular? It's also dangerous of course-no harm done in this case but if we all jump on the same story, what are we missing on the periphery?
PatsMcDonald Not only missing on the periphery but have to question the why. Is it because we can't be left out? Because we have to prove that we know what's going on? Because we think there's some cred for attaching to the momentary in thing? Or just because it's like passing a joint at the party and we all need a hit to be part of it?
Excellent analysis, one typo : it's Oliviero Toscani, not Toscana (sorry I'm a grammar nazi;)
I love the concept of SWARM and it is a perfect description of the avalanche of news we are hit with anytime something disrupts our comfort or cultural norms. 10 years ago we would be exposed to a trending news story by our local news outlets and some national. Now we get exposed to more national outlets that live online, other people's local outlets, more mid-tier and upper tier bloggers, and of course the giant cacophonous echo chamber of twitter and facebook. Everyone wants to be first, and even when they're not, they believe they're the first to break news in their own personal echo chamber. As SWARM becomes more intense, it's likely that we may start to see heavier curation by individuals who know they can get their most critical news stories from just a handful of people and outlets.
In therms of the Benetton ad, I agree it's a bit lazy. I don't doubt their commitment to causes, but if you're going to go this route, one that is so in-your-face, then make the body copy of the ad something related to inspiring or moving people towards action, not "United Colors of Benneton." For a person like me who knows very little about the brand nor its cause-supporting past, it just makes me think that they're trying to help others by ME shopping at their store...which obviously isn't the case.
This is the internet, they could have been far more subtle and people of course would still have figured out who was behind it.
I actually find the campaign kind of sleepy. What's controversial about people of the same sex kissing? Or politicians kissing? It's almost 2012 and people should focus on more important things than this. But, when you consider that doing this did drive awareness for Benetton via the SWARM (trademark that term, Edward), you could call it a success. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Sort of like how I imagine kissing Berlusconi would.