Issue: The US death penalty
At: www.benetton.com/death row
Benetton’s new global communications campaign for spring/summer 2000 has
already been raising eyebrows and caused million dollar law suits to be
lodged in the US.
The campaign recently hit Britain with harrowing billboard images of
condemned men from death row in the States. Benetton has dedicated a
large section of its web site to reinforce these images and transmit its
manifesto that prisoners on death row ’are not just virtual characters
eliminated or spared with a simple click as with a video-game’.
The site’s home page contains mug-shots of six death row prisoners
inspired by Benetton’s ad chief Oliviero Toscani. Alongside the photos
are a series of six interviews in which the prisoners reveal their fears
The most disturbing part of the interviews is when the condemned men
speak candidly about a future in which the only certainty is their
Questions range from the innocent ’do you have a hero in sport?’, to the
more probing ’have you ever been in love?’, and ’how often do you think
about your execution?’.
The site also contains a written report on behalf of the National
Criminal Defence Lawyers which helped Benetton by contacting and
negotiating with prison authorities and inmates’ lawyers. The campaign
sparked outrage in the US among the victims’ families.
There is also confusion over whether the interviews and pictures were
obtained by deception. Jeremiah Nixon, Missouri state attorney-general,
has claimed that prison authorities under his jurisdiction believed that
the journalist and photographer allowed in were working on a serious
project for Newsweek magazine. No commercial use of photos was
mentioned. He is now suing Benetton alleging ’trespass by deceit’. The
law suit is part of a backlash against the company which culminated with
pickets outside its New York mega-store. In the face of these protests
US retail giant Sears has cancelled its contract to stock clothing and
removed merchandise from 400 stores.
Benetton defends its use of shock tactics in its statement of intent on
the site. It claims: ’our campaigns have managed to tear down the wall
of indifference contributing at raising the awareness of universal
problems among the world’s citizens’.
If Benetton’s intention was to raise public awareness of the plight of
prisoners on death row then it has failed. Once again Benetton campaign
has sparked controversy and inevitably the real issue gets lost amid
arguments of good or bad taste. Visitors to the site have the rare
opportunity of gaining access to the mind of a person condemned to die,
but whether this is an ethical way of promoting a line of clothing is
questionable. Perhaps the Italian firm’s global shock tactics have
finally gone too far.