17 Nov 2011

Benetton ‘sorry’ as it pulls Pope kiss ad

Benetton pulls an advert featuring the Pope kissing an Egyptian imam, part of its “unhate” campaign. But one Catholic tells Channel 4 News the ad does anything but encourage love and tolerance.

Benetton 'sorry' as it pulls Pope kiss ad (United Colours of Benetton)

The Italian clothing company produced the offending advert as part of its “unhate” campaign which features world leaders apparently casting aside their differences and engaging in passionate embraces.

Benetton says the campaign – which also includes setting up an unhate foundation – is aimed at promoting peace, tolerance and love globally.

It is also – although Benetton is steering away from this – about getting publicity and selling clothes.

As well as the controversy the adverts have stirred around the world, advertising experts even raised their eyebrows at the central message, telling Channel 4 News that the images managed to confuse brotherly love with sexual love, undermining their message for shock value.

In the posters, which have popped up globally, mocked-up photos show President Barack Obama kissing China’s Hu Jintao and France’s President Sarkozy sharing a smooch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Most controversially, the Pope is pictured in a lip-lock with Egyptian imam Ahmed el Tayyeb. The image prompted the ire of the Vatican, which described the image as “unacceptable”, saying it showed “how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people.”

They say they are trying to build a culture of tolerance but what they have done is so far from that, it is hard to believe them. Isaac Chenciah, Catholic Voices

In response, Benetton has pulled the advert and, it would seem, lapped up the publicity, saying: “We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms.

“We are therefore sorry that the use of the image of the Pope and the imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful. In corroboration of our intentions, we have decided, with immediate effect, to withdraw this image from every publication.”

But one Catholic told Channel 4 News that the image promoted the exact opposite values to those Benetton claimed.

Isaac Chenciah, of Catholic Voices, said: “Withdrawing the advert was the right thing to do. They say they are trying to build a culture of tolerance but what they have done is so far from that, it is hard to believe them.

“But giving them the benefit of the doubt – they should try again.”

Furore over images like this of Merkel and Sarkozy is not new for Benetton (United Colors of Benetton)

The furore is not new for Benetton, which has a reputation for courting controversy. Previous ads have included the image of a nun kissing a priest and parents grieving over a man dying of Aids.

Some newspapers have refused to run the latest campaign because of the likely offence it will cause, and even the White House has expressed its displeasure over the ads.

So in terms of garnering publicity, the “shock ads” have hit home. But is it ever worth alienating and offending so many in an ad campaign? And is it a sign of desperation from Benetton to generate some publicity at a time of dwindling retail revenues in the global economic downturn?

Brand consultant and copywriter James Von Leyden told Channel 4 News Benetton’s aim is to reach its core market – the rest don’t matter.

“I think what’s driving this – in addition to, of course, being hit by the retail downturn as badly as anyone – is that they saw an opportunity to cut through to their audience. It’s not just selling clothes, it’s about buying into the values of the brand.

It’s classic advertising – let’s own it, this whole year of love and hate. Brand consultant James Von Leyden

“They have seen what is going on in the world, with the eurozone and the coming together of the Arab Spring, and decided let’s annexe – some would say hijack – this raw emotion all over the world.

“It’s classic advertising – let’s own it, this whole year of love and hate,” he said.

He said the campaign was clever and impactful, with strong concepts and a lot of effort put in to really follow through on the brand message, by setting up the foundation for example.

However, beyond all the controversy, the campaign has a key creative failing which undermines its message, he told Channel 4 News.

“There is a flaw in the imagery. The kissing in these images shows sexual love, not peace or brotherly love. It’s very much sexual love despite what they say about the unhate message – and they need to resolve this.

“They have done that because trying to visualise that Christian type of love – what could they show? World leaders embracing? That happens, Chavez and Obama have embraced. It’s not shocking, it’s not impactful. They had to go with sexual love, the kiss, to get the impact they wanted. It’s a traditional shock ad.”

If the photo below of Australia’s PM Julia Gillard meeting President Obama on Thursday is anything to go by, perhaps Benetton didn’t need to revert to digital retouching after all.

World leaders get cosy without the need of Photoshop (Reuters)