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.

"I thought this would be pretty fun," Wasson says. "We expected this project to last two months and we'd be done with it." Instead, it took seven months just to get the approval to visit the prisons, she says. Many states rejected their requests because of the notoriety of Benetton's previous campaigns. Ultimately, though, several states -- Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, North Carolina, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Missouri -- granted access.

The project was beginning to take shape. Rice, the NACDL's Death Penalty Abolition Committee chairman, acted as liaison with Benetton. Wasson helped set up the prison visits and handled correspondence. Ken Shulman, a freelance writer for Newsweek was brought on board to do the writing and interviewing. Finally, Toscani, who had done past Benetton campaigns, took on the responsibility of photographing the death-row inmates.

In July 1999, the Benetton team visited prisoners in Kentucky, Oregon and North Carolina. That trip netted a dozen photographs and interviews, which weren't enough to complete the project. So a second round of prison tours took place in October, which is when Wasson, Shulman and Toscani visited Missouri inmates at the Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Point. The Benetton-sponsored project culminated in the publication of "We, on Death Row," a 96-page full-color booklet that was distributed as an insert in the February edition of Talk magazine. Although the company's slogan, "United Colors of Benetton," appears throughout the booklet, none of the company's products is pictured. Four of the 26 condemned prisoners featured are incarcerated at Potosi.

Neither the pictures nor the text overtly addresses abolition of the death penalty. Instead, the photo essay draws attention to the people themselves. In essence, the portraits aim to put a face on state-sanctioned death, capturing the inmates in their usual prison garb. One prisoner poses with a Bible in his hand. Another is shown in a wheelchair. The sole woman is displayed in shackles. The subjects are young and old, black and white. Some smile. Some appear pensive, remorseful or defiant. All stare straight at the camera. Their eyes peer out from the glossy pages of the catalog with the indescribable resolve of those who know what fate awaits them.

In the interviews, they speak about their lives, what went wrong. They offer advice to young people on how to avoid the same pitfalls they encountered. They share their dreams, aspirations, fears. They talk about being loved and not knowing what love is. Their discourses are filled with pathos, gallows humor and, at times, wisdom.

Benetton's gallery of Missouri death-row inmates comprises Steven W. Parkus, who is mentally retarded and schizophrenic, and who killed a prison inmate in 1985; Christopher Simmons, convicted as a teenager in 1994 for throwing a bound woman into the Meramec River, where she died; Jerome Mallett, sentenced to death for the 1985 slaying of a Missouri highway patrolman; and Joseph Amrine, who stands convicted of murdering a fellow prisoner 15 years ago (see sidebar).

Amrine's words appear in boldface type on the first page of the catalog:

"I am not ready to die."

Toscani, the provocateur who framed all these exposures, is Benetton's former creative director. He left his position in May to join Talk magazine, ending an 18-year association with the company. Through a spokesperson, Toscani voices opposition to the death penalty and predicts that someday the United States will abolish capital punishment, as it has slavery. Indeed, the photographer felt so strongly about his images of the condemned Americans that he asked Benetton to expand the "We, on Death Row" campaign. The decision was seconded by Fabrica, a Benetton-funded think tank that Toscani formed in 1994, which acts as the company's avant-garde mass-media-research arm. The expanded $20 million campaign paid for additional billboard displays and spreads in Interview, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and other magazines.

By no small coincidence, the blitz preceded the death-penalty controversy in this year's U.S. presidential race, because Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, has approved 135 executions in the past five years -- more than any other governor. The issue gained further play earlier this year, when Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, after the Chicago Tribune reported dozens of instances of inadequate defense and prosecutorial misconduct in capital-murder cases. In some trials, convictions hinged on the testimony of unreliable informants. The problem doesn't stop at the Illinois border. Moreover, the introduction of DNA testing as admissible evidence has raised further questions about the guilt or innocence of numerous death-row inmates nationwide.

In the wake of these revelations, recent Gallup polls show public opinion shifting. An estimated two-thirds of all Americans still back the death penalty in murder cases, but support for capital punishment has dropped precipitously in the last six years, from a high of 80 percent. More telling, perhaps, is the finding that only 51 percent of the American public now believes the death penalty is applied fairly, and fewer than half of those polled say they approve of the way GOP nominee Bush has handled death-penalty cases.

Benetton's well-timed campaign helped focus public attention on the issue, but in some respects, "We, on Death Row" achieved more of a reaction than the company anticipated. Death-penalty supporters and the families of victims roundly condemned the campaign. Sears, Roebuck and Co. dropped its contract to sell Benetton goods, and law-enforcement fraternities railed against the company for coddling killers. Critics noted that details of the gruesome crimes were omitted from the text and the plights of victims' families ignored. The press responded with broadsides, including a scathing 60 Minutes II report, which highlighted those views. The Pennsylvania attorney general lambasted Benetton, and the California General Assembly called for a boycott of the company's products.

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