Benetton ads spark controversy
Benetton ads spark controversy_ Although you won't find Benetton in any of Durham's shopping malls, you will soon find its latest advertising campaign-which blurs the line between social activism and advertising itself-in media across the country.
The company's full magazine advertisement, which depicts stories and photographs of 26 death row inmates, has drawn criticism from prison officials who claim Benetton misrepresented itself to them, victims' rights groups and advertising experts.
Company representatives said the photo essay is just the latest in a series of campaigns designed to raise social awareness, but corrections officials in Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina said lawyers for Benetton misled them when requesting access to inmates. State officials are now discussing taking legal action against the company.
N.C. Correction Secretary Theodis Beck wrote a letter to Benetton Feb. 4 explaining his concerns. "At no time did the representatives of the Benetton campaign advise the Department of Correction that inmate photos and information would be part of Benetton's commercial advertising," he wrote. He has requested that the company stop distributing the material they obtained in North Carolina prisons.
But Benetton officials denied any wrongdoing, claiming they informed officials of the project's nature. "In all the letters, it clearly mentioned that Benetton is the sponsor," said Mark Major, director of communications for Benetton USA. "I've heard of nobody being able to take any kind of legal action, and I doubt they'll be able to."
In a preliminary letter dated July 14, 1999, Project Coordinator Julie Wasson did mention that the photographer for the project was sponsored by Benetton and even titled the letter "Benetton project."
But Tracy Little, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction, pointed out that there had been no mention of "billboards, web sites or advertising associated with the Benetton name."
The decision to expand the campaign beyond the photo essay, however, took place Nov. 18, long after the interviews, said Speedy Rice, a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which conducted much of Benetton's original negotiations with officials. "There was no reason to go back to the prisons as we did not need further access," he wrote in an e-mail.
And although a letter dated July 20 claimed that the compilation would take no stance on the death penalty and Major still argues that it did not, the layout and interviews in Talk magazine suggest otherwise. The supplement opens with the quote "I'm not ready to die" spread out over two pages, and the remainder is filled with striking images of inmates and articles that take a very clear anti-death penalty stance.
Rice admits the articles are intended to "humanize the inmate.... If humanizing a death row inmate is considered a bias against the death penalty, it is another reason to consider why we have a punishment that we can only live with if the inmate is dehumanized," he wrote.
The compilation has sparked nationwide debate between death penalty advocates and opponents. Several family members of the victims of the pictured inmates have organized a Feb. 16 protest in front of Benetton's New York City corporate headquarters.
Although Dr. Joanne Wilson, a Duke gastroenterology professor whose deceased brother's murderer is featured in the campaign, will not join the rally, she praised the protest and criticized Benetton. "I applauded the efforts that they were taking to at least express more public outrage...," she said. "I was most dismayed that [Benetton] would use the suffering of victims... and inmates... to sell clothes."
But death penalty opponents have praised the campaign. "I think it's great.... It's a really innovative idea," said Kara Minnix, president of the North Carolina chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
By arguing that the campaign has nothing to do with promoting its products, Benetton has raised larger questions about the definition of an ad and, consequently, the ethical foundation of the campaign.
John Sweeney, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the effort is clearly advertisement. "The goal... is to have people throughout the world shocked at the images and to associate that shock and edginess with Benetton," he said.
And Sweeney criticized these tactics. "There's a place where you cross the line into significant issues that are profound," he said. "Advertising has to watch its step there-[the Benetton campaign] is not that significant and not that profound."
The Benetton-affiliated Rice, a law professor at Gonzaga University, disagreed. "The photo essay is not commercial advertising, it is political speech as a social human rights statement...," he said. "It simply has their logo as the sponsoring company."