Benetton's message of international harmony gave way in the last three years to images that were deeply harrowing, or vilely inappropriate, depending on your point of view. They paved the way for a commercial civil war which exploded in the German courtslast week. It looks set to rage for weeks to come.
Benetton seemed to relish the worldwide controversy over its provocative advertising, including a photograph of the blood-smeared clothes of a dead Croatian soldier (whose parents later claimed that they did not know what they had agreed to) and a man d y ing of Aids.
The thinking was twofold. On the one hand, all publicity is good publicity. On the other, no company involved in such controversy can be seen as boring - the label every fashion firm dreads. Officially, the idea was to "raise awareness" of key social issues. But many people in Germany, the Italian company's biggest foreign market, wanted none of it. There were leaflet campaigns calling for a boycott.
Now, retailers claim that they have lost money because of the ad campaign. When Benetton sued retailers for refusing to pay their bills, they counter-sued for the money allegedly lost because of the shock advertising - to the tune of a total of around £2m in five cases alone.
One case, attended by dozens of reporters, came to court in Kassel last week. Courts in Dusseldorf, Braunschweig, Mannheim, Cologne and a clutch of other towns are due to hear cases soon. Others may follow in France and Spain.
Ulfert Engels, the lawyer co-ordinating the German retailers' campaign, says it is an open and shut case: "Just look at the changing revenues of the textile industry in general - and look at Benetton. Benetton had five or 10 years of much higher-than- average turnover. Then they went down to 15 or 20 per cent below the general level. It's very clear. The campaign caused 95 per cent of the problems. The additional pressures accounted for just 5 per cent."
Last week's court case involved Heinz Hartwich, owner of four Benetton shops in Kassel, who is being sued by the company for £400,000. He has received widespread support. The German advertisers' association has complained of Benetton's "propaganda with cheap tricks".
Mr Hartwich also claims to have German mothers on his side. He has told reporters that some mothers say their children are ostracised by friends if they wear Benetton clothes. German courts have banned several Benetton ads because they are "not just tasteless, but against morals", especially because they are unrelated to the product.
This argument is scornfully rejected by Benetton spokeswoman Marina Galanti: "That seems to mean that if we had been selling bulletproof vests it would have been OK to use the picture of the Croatian soldier. But because we weren't, it was deemed to be censorable."
Ms Galanti insists that the controversial images are "globally relevant" - and says that the court judgments do not necessarily reflect public opinion. "The courts have arrogated to themselves the right to decide how people respond. But the advertisementcollection is in German museums - and we're invited to give talks at universities."
She complains that the retailers are trying to stir up "media mayhem" to conceal the facts of the story: "It is a normal situation - an unpleasant situation, if you like - where we sometimes have to take retailers to court to recover debts. Hartwich has had payment problems since 1986, at a time when our advertising images were of smiley happiness. Now, he's got a scapegoat. By making a fracas about this, he and others have found a good excuse not to pay."
Mr Engels complains that sales have fallen in some areas by up to a half. Benetton insists that the volume of goods sold in Germany has remained more or less stable over the past three years and that the picture is less bleak than it might be. A large new Italian factory is to be opened later this year. Worldwide production rose by 13 per cent in 1994 and turnover rose by 4 per cent to £1.2bn. Benetton says Germany's market share remained more or less unchanged, at 12 per cent.
The company is cheerfully unrepentant about the fuss its advertising has caused. In Britain, the Aids images - including an HIV "branding" on a naked buttock - came under fire from Aids charities, who argued that they reinforced stereotypes. In Germany Benetton continues to work with one of the main Aids groups. In characteristic style, a recent "successful" action involved covering an obelisk with a giant condom.Reuse content