Benetton on death row

Campaigns designed to provoke outrage are the Benetton hallmark, but they have had limited impact in

Don't groan. Benetton is back. The Italian firm that spent millions astonishing us all with the revelation that Aids could kill, that birth involves red stuff called blood and that there are both black and white people in the world is preparing to launch its latest advertising salvo. But be ready to be surprised. Out goes the toe-curling naivety of its past efforts, which had all the subtlety of a Scandinavian disc jockey. Benetton has grown up.

The campaign, which the company claims will be its biggest ever, is devoted to the death penalty. Its official launch in the US magazine Talk, Tina Brown's newish politics-meets-celebs platform, takes the form of a 100-page glossy supplement called "We, On Death Row". It consists of profiles and photo-graphs of death-row prisoners, punctuated by cogently argued pieces from campaigners and quotes from the Dalai Lama and the Pope, challenging the right of the state to execute its citizens.

Although billboards will hit Britain and Europe in two to three weeks' time, the main focus will continue to be on America. After all, there is no urgent debate on this side of the Atlantic about the return of the death penalty, while more than 100 people were killed by the US government last year. Thirty-eight individual states currently carry out executions by lethal injection, electrocution, gas chamber or hanging. Some states that briefly banned capital punishment in the late 1960s and 1970s are bringing executioners out of semi-retirement to despatch these "dead men (and women) walking". So powerful is this momentum that few serious political figures are willing to stand against it, and certainly no contender for the US presidency. Even in an election in which a Republican, John McCain, is willing to argue against tax cuts and to press for the reform of campaign funding, the death penalty remains unchallenged and mostly unmentioned.

So it would be churlish not to welcome Benetton's intervention, or not to acknowledge the sheer effort involved. It took three years and a legion of lawyers to negotiate access for the company's legendary creative director and photographer, Oliviero Toscani.

It was a frustrating process, and many requests were eventually refused. Intense, too. The credits include ambiguous thanks to "the prison guards who searched us, frisked us, stored our belongings, stamped our hands, opened and closed gates for us and made our visit secure". One prisoner asks desperately for people to write to him because he is so lonely. Another, denied access to any paints or art materials, has taken solace in using different coloured M&Ms to draw.

But perhaps the most disturbing of Benetton's death-row accounts is an interview with a prison warden. An Ur- Christian of the sort America excels in, he insists on sharing the inmates' last suppers before they are executed, occasions he uses to preach salvation. If they repent, he promises to hold their hand as the lethal injection finishes them off. If not, they are on their own.

"We will look back to this kind of justice one day and we will consider ourselves very primitive," Toscani said recently. He wants to show the inmates as "tragedies", regardless of their guilt or innocence. One inmate (who has since been executed) is shown reading a Bible. Another speaks longingly of memories of "the smell of waking up early in the morning watching the dew".

The campaign is high-risk. Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based Justice for All group, has accused Benetton of "using the blood of murder victims to promote its commodity", and has called for a boycott of Benetton goods. "Let's call a spade a spade. The only reason they are on a poster is because they are capital murderers." She has a point. And who knows whether the appeal to our sympathies will backfire for these individual prisoners? Their Benetton-sponsored prominence will inevitably invite an uncomfortable kind of play-off with the families of their victims. As the families see billboards emblazoned with the faces of their loved-ones' killers, they will be assaulted once again with the cruelty of their predicament. In the ensuing battle between victim and perpetrator, the prisoners cannot win, especially in an America inured to indulging the victimhood of criminals. Despite the reminder by the campaigner Ken Shulman in the Benetton supplement that the law does not exist to placate the bereaved, televised court cases tell a different story. It has become normal for victims and families to display their grief in special sessions before sentencing is considered.

Benetton's defence is that the death penalty is intrinsically cruel for these families as well as for the prisoners. Appeals have been known to take up to 20 years to wind their way through the courts, and the average stay of execution in Georgia is eight years. Closure, the great argument used by defenders of the death penalty, is a long time coming.

Compared to these, the dangers to Benetton seem insigni-ficant. There will be some unfavourable publicity, but that has not bothered it before. There may be accusations that a foreign company is interfering in American governance. In a country where the consumer boycott is a favourite tool of the Christian and loony right, it could even face a concerted customer revolt. But the Italian clothiers would probably welcome this. For all its undoubted worthiness, the whole expensive campaign is expressly designed to provoke outrage. Such strategies have become the Benetton hallmark.

Until 1985, Benetton's advertising consisted of undistinguished profiles of each season's new range of woollens in cheerful bright colours. Then Toscani arrived and began his bizarre parallel campaigns, or "communications" as he calls them. Powerful images, such as a family crowding round a dying Aids victim, they aimed to arrest or repel, and quickly became a legend in the world of advertising. They reached their apogee in a billboard in which the trademark United Colours logo discreetly took refuge under a picture of a black stallion mounting a white mare. Deep, man (so to speak).

The resulting moral panic that these exercises provoked, year after year, garnered free tabloid coverage, raised the company's profile and, above all, distinguished the brand from its dull competitors. Benetton may have become successful by getting the economics of fashion right, manufacturing and then distributing clothes more cheaply than its rivals. But it was Toscani's marketing that turned it into a truly global brand.

But social mores have changed since 1985. The much-needed tabloid headlines are so much harder to court. How is an Italian photographer to provoke moral outrage and, in the process, raise brand awareness when Jerry Springer is busy dissecting every shade of genital permutation on daytime TV, and Aids gets less attention than an outbreak of flu in Scunthorpe?

Cue a serious political campaign in the world's biggest retail market, which presses all the right buttons on a subject so sensitive it has all but disappeared from the news agenda.

The biggest button of all is one that Benetton has been pushing since Toscani first began to interpret United Colours literally: race. A key group in any retail assault on America is the young African-American market. But here Benetton has been left trailing by the success of other brands. Ask Mr Hilfiger about that. Or Nike. Or Gap.

Benetton's conventional clothing ads featuring various ethnic groups united only by their preference for brightly coloured Italian woollens might go down well in Oslo or Budapest, where such a sentiment passes for avant-garde. But in America, as in Britain, it has always seemed embarrassing. The ads became the race awareness equivalent of Ferrero Rocher's diplomatic salon.

Toscani's "communications" played even worse. In countries where the mere existence of black people can still be relied upon to provoke debate, such as France or Italy (where Mussolini is a name that still wins elections), maybe the image of a black woman suckling a white baby could be considered thought-provoking. In America it bombed, lambasted by pundits and black leaders for its evocation of slavery. Toscani discovered he was provoking outrage, but with the opposite effect to that he had achieved in Europe and Asia. Black customers, whose tastes so often lead youth culture, deserted the brand in droves.

In America, the death penalty and race are inextricably intertwined. About 60 per cent of the total US prison population of 1.5 million are African-American or Latino; more than one in three black men in their twenties are in jail, on probation, on parole or awaiting trial. The black population of death row is commensurately high. Any campaign on the death penalty, therefore, addresses one of the most pressing political concerns of African-Americans. It associates the Benetton brand with a radical departure from the American mainstream.

If the campaign becomes embroiled in controversy, as it surely will, it may manage the impressive feat of associating Benetton with being streetwise. Outrage, free publicity and a marked improvement in brand reputation in a crucial market segment - whatever the cost, for Luciano Benetton it's cheap at the price.

If the economic interests of a fashion magnate and a radical political agenda coincide then, maybe, so much the better. The problem is that long after Benetton's American profits have increased and it has moved on to its next cause celebre, the hard work of actually changing legislation will still need to be done. There will still be a moral vacuum inhabited by fearful politicians and dodgy focus groups.

Any ideas how to solve that one, Oliviero?

Malcolm Clark is a producer for BBC's "Horizon"

This article first appeared in the 24 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The tyranny of the brands