Murder, They Advertised

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon speaks out against Benetton's "We, on Death Row" ad supplement featuring Missouri inmates; plus, other St. Louis follies and foibles

This is a match made somewhere other than heaven, having those wacky image-makers at Benetton in a tiff with political animal/media hound Jay Nixon, attorney general of Missouri. Too bad the topic is life and death and not something slightly less important -- then the spat might be truly funny. Murder has a way of being a downer.

Benetton is the Italian fashion giant known for putting startling images on billboards, in magazine ads and in glossy ad supplements. Examples include a 1989 photo of a black woman breastfeeding a white infant, a 1991 shot of a priest and a nun kissing and a 1994 faces-of-AIDS campaign. During the World Cup, a Benetton ad featured two soccer balls in a condom as part of the company's ongoing "AIDS-Safer Sex" campaign. One ad, relating to race, showed three virtually identical human hearts, surgically removed, labeled "white," "black" and "yellow."

So why does Benetton do this? Nixon says it's to sell clothes. But how does printing a 96-page ad supplement as part of an anti-death-penalty campaign (which took three years and $20 million to produce) sell sweaters and shirts? Well, most clothes perform the same function, so a company seeks an advantage by linking its logo to an edgy, world-wise image. You buy the product, you buy the identity, or at least that's the theory. So it's a publicity stunt with a moral.

The "We, on Death Row," supplement appeared in the current issue of Talk magazine, Tina Brown's latest example of how she can run an interesting magazine as long as she's allowed to lose millions of dollars (previous example: The New Yorker). The photos depict convicted murderers on death row. Several are from Missouri, including Jerome Mallett, convicted of killing Missouri state trooper James Froemsdorf. This inclusion particularly pissed off Nixon.

"I saw that line in there that quotes one of the guys, "The problem with our society is that fathers aren't spending enough time with their kids.' Then you flip two pages later and you got a picture of Jerome Mallett, who shot Trooper Froemsdorf, and his three kids have grown up for the last 15 years with no dad -- that's surreal," says Nixon. So why didn't Nixon just ignore it? Isn't he falling for the stunt by beating the drum about this?

"I certainly hope this doesn't cause people to go out and buy Benetton sweaters," says Nixon. "Somebody needs to speak out -- they're sending out 600,000 copies of this advertising all over the country; they're talking about billboards." Nixon says he has launched an investigation to find out how Benetton obtained the photos and interviews. He says the photographer and interviewer claimed they were doing a documentary. Maybe someone should have become suspicious when prisoners were told to change out of their Gap T-shirts.

"If they had told the truth about what they were doing, they would not have had the access to do what they did," Nixon says. "We do not sell the pictures of death-row inmates to benefit private companies." The legal strategy here is to prove that deception was used and to file a civil suit to prevent the company from profiting by it. "I'm not an advertising expert, but Nike has all sorts of ads with a goofy picture with just its swoosh logo down in the corner," Nixon says.

Nixon's Jan. 28 letter to the "Chief Executive Officer, Benetton Group SpA," in Treviso, Italy, charged that the campaign was "launched on the backs of innocent victims." A Feb. 2 press release from Nixon stated that the campaign was "glorifying convicted murderers" and that Benetton had misled prison officials to gain access to interview and photograph prisoners. TV news dutifully picked up the baton from there, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch followed with an above-the-fold Page One piece reiterating Nixon's outrage. The Benetton execs must be chuckling all the way from death row. That 20 mil was well spent.

To those in the trenches of the anti-death-penalty struggle, the Benetton ad blitz isn't necessarily seen as a positive. The Rev. Paul Beins, chaplain at the St. Louis city jail for 28 years, fears the controversy might counteract the recent progress in Illinois, where Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions as a result of the reversal of several death-row cases.

"I thought that was great. The Illinois governor is saying, "Hold it a minute.' He's not saying he's opposed to execution, he's just saying, "Are we killing the right people?' That to me, is very important," says Beins, who has retired from his work at the city jail but remains active in Missourians Against the Death Penalty. Beins worries that the current flap will trigger Missouri legislators to do some grandstanding to prove they're not weak on crime. "I don't know how our legislators are going to react to it," says Beins. "That's the hassle I've got right now."

BLACKOUT AT THE SUPER BOWL: With the Post-Dispatch sending 29 people to the Super Bowl, management must have thought it had all its bases covered. But no, once the troops had landed in Atlanta, an uproar of sorts surfaced back on Tucker Boulevard. Of all those sent to cover the Rams-Titans game, only one was an African-American. That was Gary Hairlson, a photo editor.

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