Benetton death row ads outrage America

Four months after launching its most recent global advertising campaign featuring an anti-death penalty theme with images of convicts on America's Death Row, the Italian clothing company Benetton is assessing its impact. In the United States, they already have the answer. It has not been popular.

Indeed, rank anger in America at the advertisements, which were conceived by Oliviero Toscani, the eye behind all of the firm's campaigns since the early 1980s, even now has not subsided. Only last week, the state of Pennsylvania joined the critics by calling for a nationwide boycott of Benetton goods.

Benetton, which counts on the US for only 5 per cent of its business and is keen to expand here, can reach only one conclusion: that it underestimated the attachment in America to capital punishment. "Maybe we didn't fully calculate the emotional reaction it was going to cause," conceded a spokesman, Frederico Santor.

In the US, the company opened the campaign with a 96-page supplement that was attached to the February issue of Talk magazine. Entitled "We, On Death Row", it featured photographs of 26 condemned men in different US states. The written profiles were mostly sympathetic, focusing on the regrets expressed by the men about their plights and offering almost no details of the crimes they were convicted of committing.

The Pennsylvania assault, led by Attorney General Lynne Abraham, is only the latest in a string of blows inflicted on Benetton's American operation since the ads first appeared. A recent resolution passed by the California Assembly similarly asked for a boycott of the company. Missouri is suing the company, saying it misrepresented its intentions when it gained access to convicts on Death Row in that state. "Death row is not for sale," the Attorney General for that state, Jay Nixon, fumed at his own press conference. "What's next? Are we going to allow people to film sneaker commercials there?"

Most painful of all, however, was a decision by Sears Roebuck, the retail monolith based in Chicago, to tear up a franchising contract that it had only just reached with Benetton, purely because of the advertising campaign. In February, Sears dropped Benetton and cleared from its shelves all of the Benetton-labelled clothes that it had started to manufacture and to sell under the franchise agreement.

Sears, which has a base of mid-western and mostly conservative-thinking customers, took the step almost instantly after groups representing relatives of murder victims begin to speak out against Benetton. These included Parents of Murdered Children, which staged a protest outside the company's US head office on New York's Fifth Avenue, in mid-February. Those participating included family members of victims murdered by men featured in the company's campaign.

Among them was Dr Joanne Wilson. The man convicted of killing her younger brother, Ed Peebles, was in Benetton's Talk supplement. "I could not believe that someone would sell clothing using the suffering of the families of the victims and even the Death Row inmates themselves," she said.

Mr Toscani, now in New York as creative director of Talk, expresses no remorse. Nor does he hide his sentiments on capital punishment. "I don't regret campaigning for something that is in the Ten Commandments," he said in an interview. "Anything that is at all interesting in our society is going to produce an interesting reaction." As for Sears, Mr Toscani almost sneered. "I am disappointed that they did such an obvious thing. It is not a good sign in a modern company."

Benetton itself notes that US sales of its new spring lines are up on last year, so far at least. "We have had lots of letters from people promising never to buy Benetton products," Mr Santor admitted. "But mostly they were from the Midwest - places where we don't have any stores anyhow."

It is not as if Benetton is unaccustomed to such storms. Previous Toscani campaigns similarly to have stirred outrage included images of a man dying of Aids, a priest kissing a nun, a new-born child covered in blood and two horses, one black, one white, copulating. All the campaigns presume to offer some social message.

But according to some, like Jerry Della Famina, head of the New York advertising agency Della Famina/Jeary, the "We, On Death Row" project went one step too far. "If the death sentence were handed out to those who are guilty of producing excruciatingly tasteless, ineffective advertising and inflicting it on the masses, Oliviero Toscani, the self-proclaimed genius behind Benetton advertising, would be appearing in his own anti-capital punishment ads," he wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. "In the cell next to him, also sentenced to death by lethal injection of red ink, would be his accomplice, Luciano Benetton."