Killer Campaign

When the Benetton clothing company dared to humanize death-row inmates in a $20 million ad campaign, Attorney General Jay Nixon threw a fit. Then he played right into their hands and sued them.

Speedy Rice went to Strasbourg, France, in December of 1997, armed with the idea of forming an anti-death-penalty alliance through the European Union. Specifically, the American law professor, with the cooperation of an Italian abolitionist group -- Hands Off Cain -- wanted European economic sanctions against Missouri and the 37 other U.S. states that impose the death penalty. Conversely, Rice and his delegation, which included other members of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), urged the Europeans to invest in states such as Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, which don't have capital-punishment laws. Despite their apparent receptiveness, the parliamentarians themselves had little influence over the industrialists in their own countries. The proposal died like a neglected refugee. There would be no dramatic change in international diplomacy, no shift in world trade. But Rice's message did attract the attention of Paolo Landi, a Benetton Group executive. The Italian clothing-company official appeared unexpectedly and requested an audience with the Americans, leaving them all puzzled. Nobody had a clue as to why the foreign businessman had chosen to introduce himself.

"Frankly, at the end of that meeting, we all kind of scratched our heads and said, 'What was that all about?'" recalls Rice. Afterward, Landi proceeded to tag along as Rice and others knocked on the doors of Parliament. "He just wanted to know what we were doing," Rice says. "We would introduce him as an observer. He would nod his head very nicely. Our thinking was very superficial, to be honest with you. You know, it was kind of like, 'Maybe we could get Benetton to do some T-shirts for us.'"

On his return to the United States, Rice sent the Benetton executive a courtesy letter. Almost a year passed before he heard from the mysterious Mr. Landi again. In late November 1998, Rice remembers receiving a call asking whether he would be interested in helping plan a photo essay for Benetton featuring American death-row inmates. The discussions were so preliminary that Rice didn't even bother to take notes, he says. But the possibility of having a deep-pocketed benefactor bankroll an anti-death-penalty campaign intrigued him. The long-distance talks continued, including a conference call with Landi and a photographer named Oliverio Toscani, whom Rice had never heard of before.

Meanwhile, as the number of executions continued to climb in the United States, opponents in Europe, including Hands Off Cain, initiated a campaign advocating worldwide abolition of the death penalty by the year 2000. Other proposals by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the Vatican advocated a moratorium. The stage was set. The whole world was watching, and Benetton, which is noted for addressing social issues in its advertising, decided to seize the opportunity and fuel the death-penalty debate. Working with Rice and the NACDL, the company began laying the groundwork for its latest project. From the beginning, Benetton chose to associate its identity with a position that would inevitably foment an emotional response. This comes as no surprise. Playing devil's advocate, challenging the status quo and questioning established beliefs are all longstanding company traits.

Since Luciano Benetton founded the Italian clothing company in 1955, the family-owned business has grown into a multinational corporation that operates in more than 120 countries, with sales approaching $2 billion last year. But the global enterprise doesn't just knit sweaters. United Colors of Benetton campaigns manufacture, promote and distribute points of view, as if controversy itself were a company trademark. The unorthodox advertising has frequently stirred public outrage. In 1984, Benetton infuriated apartheid backers in South Africa by featuring photographs of black and white youths frolicking together. In 1992, the company focused a camera lens on a dying AIDS patient. Other Benetton campaigns have advocated peace in the Middle East and exposed the horrors of war in the Balkans. Shunning convention and breaking taboos are the main criteria for launching a Benetton campaign. The themes can sometimes be playful and are always provocative: a denim-clad Eve baring a breast; a nun and a priest kissing; a black stallion mounting a white mare.

Benetton calls these promotions "corporate communications campaigns," and the strategy of attaching the company's name to an issue is referred to as "branding."

"This is not Madison Avenue advertising," says Mark Major, a Benetton spokesman in New York. "We're talking about important issues around the world, and we're associating our brand with caring about those issues. This is a very unconventional way of looking at communications."

As a profit-making global corporation, the company's social consciousness can hardly be considered charitable. But the Benetton spokesman argues that altruism and profit aren't mutually exclusive. "It's hard to understand in the United States, where companies are motivated purely by profit," Major says. "We have a profit motive and we're in business, but we recognize the fact that we're global. We have a tremendous ability to reach lots of people. We feel that it is a waste of our money and our presence not to take advantage of that and communicate other things that are more important, as far as humanity goes, than just our product."

Julie Wasson became active in the death-row project for another reason: She was trying to please her boss. The 29-year-old assistant was relatively new to her job at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., when Rice, who teaches there, asked her to help out.

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