Joan Smith: The gullible Vatican rings up sales for Benetton

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Plenty of people have got into trouble in the past few years because someone's taken offence over something they've said or published. I'm thinking about the controversy almost six years ago over cartoons in a Danish newspaper, which led to embassies being stormed by angry mobs, while the home of the cartoonist who drew the prophet Mohamed was attacked as recently as last year. In 2004, a Dutch film-maker, Theo van Gogh, was shot dead and almost decapitated by an Islamist who objected to his film criticising the role of women in Islam, and it's only weeks since the Paris offices of a French satirical magazine were firebombed.

Now the Italian clothing firm Benetton has strayed into this territory, unveiling a deliberately sensational advertising campaign that features world leaders kissing. The pictures, including an image of the Pope locking lips with an Egyptian imam, have been digitally altered; no one could seriously believe that Barack Obama goes around snogging Venezuela's demagogic president, Hugo Chavez. But the Vatican duly rose to the bait, denouncing the image of the Pope, whereupon Benetton offered an apology and withdrew it.

Result! I rarely go into Benetton these days and I don't think of its clothes as distinctive, let alone edgy, but suddenly the brand is being talked about for the first time in ages. I was amused to see the Daily Mail getting the wrong end of the stick, talking about the company's "humiliating climbdown" when Benetton had acquired masses of free publicity. But I'm pretty annoyed by the way the campaign trivialises the efforts of writers and artists who have taken risks because they care about human rights and freedom of expression. No one wants to have to go into hiding or live with armed bodyguards, but intellectuals such as the author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who collaborated with Theo van Gogh, put themselves on the line for a rather more substantial purpose than selling clothes.

Some companies build ethics and respect for human rights into their business; the Body Shop, for instance, set up a foundation that promotes environmental and social projects in developing countries. The Benetton ads appear under the made-up word "unhate", which is the title of a new foundation that's going to promote "tolerance", and I suppose the company may have thought this a good moment to capitalise on antipathy towards politicians. But its psychobabble about wanting to create "positive energy" ignores basic facts, such as the reasons why few world leaders – let alone the president of South Korea – are likely to get into a clinch with the criminal dynasty that currently runs North Korea. Unhate, love, or whatever you want to call it is a breathtakingly inadequate response to the labour camps that await anyone who doesn't conform in this most horrendous of dictatorships.

I don't remember anyone paying Benetton so much attention since its campaign featuring a man dying of Aids in an Ohio hospital. The Aids photo attracted accusations of exploiting grief, although some activists welcomed it as a step in breaking the taboos that existed around the condition in the early 1990s. The new publicity campaign feels like a desperate and ill-judged attempt to go back in time, but in a world where the stakes are much higher. The Vatican can be relied on to make a fuss, but I don't think many of us are taken in by this attempt to sex up a tired brand.

www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

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