Benetton bumbles Pieta AIDS Campaign

Welcome to the eighth edition of Theoretical Thursdays this summer. For the previous article click here. This week takes a look at the many controversies of United Colors of Benetton. 


The fashion house United Colors of Benetton has spent the last few decades under critical fire for their often controversial advertising campaigns. One of the first examples of this is the 1991 Pieta AIDS campaign. Appearing mainly as the print media components of posters, billboards, and editorial advertisements this campaign featured Therese Frare’s photographs of AIDS activist David Kirby’s final moments with his family. The 1990 LIFE magazine photos were seen by Oliviero Toscani, then working with Benetton, who acquired the good graces of Kirby’s family and Frare to use the colored images.

Appearing towards the end of the first AIDS epidemic, from 1987-1992, the images were meant to shock the public into awareness of the HIV virus. The campaign certainly brought attention to the subject, especially in foreign countries, but not all the press was good. The photo itself went on to win press photography awards while the campaign won numerous awards including the prestigious European Art Director Club Award. However, the general public, like so many campaigns before it, did not share the critic’s love of the work. AIDS activists denounced it as fear mongering rather than focusing on the family’s support and sorrow. Many Christian groups shared displeasure of comparisons made between Kirby and Christ. Still others balked that the ad encouraged homosexuality. The negative backlash of the campaign caused many publications to pull the ad from production and others to refuse it outright.

The craft, while controversial, is pretty solid. The shot is framed tightly to maximize the emotional content. Frare’s original photos were presumably shot in black and white but Toscani’s team chose to run the ads in color as contemporary advertisements were printed. The color technicians did an excellent job restoring the photographs for mass production. The downside is that there is little connection to the brand except for one small green box with the company name in the bottom corner. There is no mention of the fashion house’s contributions to charitable organizations although in today’s age of technology the addition of a url would amend this deficet.   benetton-chains

In the end I’m not sure where I stand personally on the campaign’s effectiveness. From a cultural advertising standpoint this practice was common of the time: partnerships with artist Keith Harring, the Guerrilla Girls, and the witty Truisms of Barbara Kruger were contemporary icons. However, beyond the activism and charitable contributions there was little connection of AIDS to the fashion house. I highly doubt that the designers were trying to say that only people with AIDS wear Benetton; likewise, the message is also not that people who wear Benetton will contract AIDS.

In contrast, Benetton’s previous work with Toscani, the 1989 Handcuffs, has a greater connection to the brand and set the precedent, or style, for decades to come including La Pieta. This ad features the hands of a white man and a black handcuffed together. However, despite the close cropping Benetton clothing is still a prominently displayed commodity within the frame; this creates an active product connection. The combination of activism and advertising laid the foundation for, and still is, marketable brand solutions ranging from Benetton’s own 2011 UNHATE, Gap’s 2012 Love Comes in Every Shade, and to one-for-one companies such as Tom’s.

These stylized, and highly thought out, ads represent the weight social activism has both in design and pop culture societal status. It moves past the long-held motion that brands are selling whole lifestyles, not just products, to crafting campaigns that actively engage consumers to think with self-awareness. Toscani and his contemporaries question brand loyalists how do their own spending habits of affect the communities they live in and the associated perceptions within that world—the notion of substance over status.

For more on the Benetton Pieta AIDS campaign click here or click here.



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