There was a time when controversy was a genuinely new and powerful advertising strategy. When the placing of images which were truly shocking on large billboards caused debate and outrage and could even be said to have contributed to social change.
A man dying of AIDS. A bloody, bullet-riddled shirt. Death-row inmates. Mating horses. And (oddly enough, the one which attracted the most complaints) a just-born baby covered in mucus and with umbilical cord still attached.
Benetton ads, of course. From the 1990s. Before the internet. When these topics were still major social issues and the campaign really did generate debate and discussion amid all the frothing affront and righteous indignation.
Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer behind these images (but since 2000 no longer Benetton’s go-to man for advertising campaigns) is an interesting and articulate man and a passionate defender of his art. He makes a compelling case for the presentation of images of uncomfortable real life and has continued to confront issues such as anorexia and prejudice in recent years.
Benetton, however, seems to have forgotten everything which made the iconic United Colours campaign of the 1990s so powerful as well as so controversial. The recent ‘unhate’ ads showing world leaders in amorous embraces offers none of the social activism and poignancy, offering instead mere crude offence in place of topical issue confrontation.
Insensitivity and inflamatory rather than iconoclastic, the ‘unhate’ posters are sad parody of what Benetton attempted in the dying days of the last millenium. They haven’t even had the nerve to see it through, caving in to Vatican pressure over one particular image with such speed that the sound of backpedalling echoed across continents. They actually apologised for “offending sensibilities”. Wasn’t that the whole point? Or maybe there never was any real point.
It’s all rather sad.
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Paul discusses the new integrated paradigm of sponsorship, advertising, product development and social media working together. He also claims, he has a ‘lack of knowledge about X-Factorees’ but we’re on to you. We know you’ve voted for Little Mix every time or was it Johnny? Have a read here…