An oily bird in the rag trade: Why does Benetton think a picture of a dying seabird will help sell more jumpers? Hamish McRae explains the theory

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The Independent Online
ON SATURDAY the Independent ran an advertisement from Benetton featuring a seabird covered in oil. As a result, a number of readers wrote or telephoned the office to express their disapproval, and their views have been reflected in the letters column.

The view of the paper is that while the use of the image was unattractive, even distasteful, the freedom to advertise is a form of free speech which should not be abandoned lightly.

For what it is worth, the picture had actually been taken not after the Shetland disaster but during the Gulf war and the ad was printed without much protest some months ago. Maybe we care more about British birds than Arabian ones. But care we do, and we found the image shocking.

Benetton has done this before, running a series of pictures that have nothing obviously to do with its trade but are designed to shock: pictures of child labour, the electric chair in a prison, the KGB arresting a 'corrupter'. What makes an Italian fashion company think these adverts will help it to sell more jumpers?

The answer is simple. Benetton is in a basic business. It is not hi- tech; there is no special knowledge which goes into its products. It is a family textile firm that has developed a brilliant computer system which enables it to get the right styles, and particularly the right colours, into its franchised shops. How, if you are a boring business selling in a young and fickle marketplace, do you avoid a boring image? You borrow a mission. In ad-world jargon, the oiled bird is a 'borrowed mission statement'.

The writer and management consultant Peter York likens Benetton to Anita Roddick's Body Shop. That, too, is a retail franchise operation in which the franchise-owner needs to generate publicity to support the outlets. But it has a real mission: buy a nicely packaged (and nicely priced) bag of soap and cosmetics and you may not save a rainforest, but at least they won't have tested the product on live rabbits. The proposition is calculated to appeal to the 18-year-old vegetarian daughters of the middle classes, and the products do reflect Body Shop's claimed values. Benetton's products do not.

Borrowed though its mission may be, it serves the essential purpose: to make buying a boring product seem slightly exciting, slightly rebellious, even slightly dangerous. Benetton supports motor racing for the same purpose. From an environmental point of view, Formula One racing must be one of the least satisfactory sports to sponsor; but no one can deny that it is exciting.

In that sense the Benetton message is not unlike that of Virgin Atlantic. Getting bottoms on to 747 seats is hardly glamorous, but the slightly raffish image of Richard Branson, with his sweaters and his ballooning, lends glitz. His frequent-flyer programme cleverly includes balloon trips and (if you fly often enough) a week at his Caribbean island hideaway as 'rewards'. You are not just buying a seat on an aircraft: you are buying a dream.

Michael Dobbs, former chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, and author of the television series House of Cards, likens the Benetton campaign more to Madonna: a deliberate effort to set up images in the knowledge that they will be shot down. Benetton, he believes, does not care about the response. Whatever happens, it gets publicity. But this is not, he points out, either a conventional advertising technique or indeed one which could be imitated. This is why Benetton ads are special.

The whole campaign is not an ad campaign at all. It is run not by an ad agency but by an art director at Benetton itself. The proposition is not that Benetton clothes will make people look nicer: it is just to make people think. According to the company, it is showing its 'green' credentials by demonstrating that the well- being of people in rich Western societies comes at a price, and it has had its policies approved by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

If people feel confused by this combination of Body Shop's greenery, Virgin's raffishness, and Madonna's desire to shock, they can of course buy their jumpers from someone else. As they do so, they might like to ponder a small irony. One of the more effective techniques for cleaning oiled birds, one which both absorbs the oil and keeps the bird warm, is to put them into, yes, woolly jumpers.