If you’ve ever wondered what it might look like to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tenderly kissing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—and who hasn’t?—wonder no more. With its latest ad campaign, Benetton is courting controversy once again by prominently featuring images of world leaders sharing intimate moments. (Don't worry, there's no tongue.)
Benetton's lofty new initiative, "Unhate," launches today and is an amplified version of the same tolerance message the company has publicly espoused since at least the 1980s, when ethnically harmonious bands of young models gathered together in ads, which became pop-cultural shorthand for diversity. (As in, "Yeah, that pre-school in the East Village/Silver Lake looks like a Benetton ad!")
And it wouldn't be complete without some righteous indignation. Right on cue, a spokesperson representing Pope Benedict XVI asked to recall a version of the ad showing his holiness kissing Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, the head of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. "This is a grave lack of respect for the pope, an offense against the sentiments of the faithful and a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules for people in order to attract attention through provocation," a Vatican official said on Wednesday.
On its Facebook page, Benetton gave its official response: "We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms. We are therefore sorry that the use of the image of the Pope and the Imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful. In corroboration of our intentions, we have decided, with immediate effect, to withdraw this image from every publication." There are more elements to the campaign than just the ad, though.
The new initiative, created by agency 72andSunny, in conjunction with Benetton's creative unit, Fabrica, goes far beyond those peaceful youth summits mentioned above, returning to the gritty vein of some of the company’s previous ads, which contained nudity and directly confronted topics such as AIDS and the death penalty. In an extension of the campaign idea, Benetton has formed The Unhate Foundation, which promotes closeness between cultures, races, and religions, and brings topical hate issues to the attention of the mainstream public. "(Our) objective was to help Benetton reclaim its relevance and insert the brand in a broader cultural conversation," says 72andSunny creative director Carlo Cavallone. "In many ways this is a return to Benetton’s roots as a disruptive marketer."
French filmmaker Laurent Chanez was recruited to make a short film for the Unhate foundation, which is set to play before previews in movie theatres, and circulate online. In it, a multitude of people from regions all over the world are shown in various states of embrace—friends greeting each other, boxers touching gloves, lovers canoodling. After a sudden shift, though, more people are shown in similarly close quarters, only now they’re fighting. The discord escalates in intensity, lead along by a violin-fronted orchestra, from images of schoolyard bullying to footage from Arab Spring, with scenes of a warehouse party thrown in for extra disorientation. Finally, the clip ends with tight shots of multi-ethnic couples kissing (this is Benetton after all), hammering home the message that love and hate are like identical Winklevoss Twins both played by the same actor.
The November 16 launch begins with a big event in the Benetton flagship Haussman in Paris, where Allesandro Benetton will be on hand. Coinciding with the event, the print ads, which alternately feature Kim Jong Il, Lee Myung-Bak, and other world leaders rounding first base, should begin seeping into the public eye via guerilla postings in key cities around the globe, including Milan, Tel Aviv, and New York City.
The clothing company has also made space for user-generated content on its website with The Unhate Kiss Wall, where viewers can upload, say, images of a dog and a cat, and then see the two animals tenderly kissing, symbolizing the end of interspecies domestic abuse.
In other acts of animal symbolism, Benetton Creative Director Erik Ravelo has created The Unhate Dove, which is a piece of art the size of a modest two-story house, made entirely from spent bullets collected in hot war zones around the world. The image of the dove will be visible in Benetton stores and online, and the art itself will be exhibited around the world to promote the campaign.
The highly charged controversial imagery in the new print ads assures that the ads themselves, and Benetton, will enter the national discussion. Whether people are ready to accept President Barack Obama and China’s Supreme Leader Hu Jintao swapping spit in the name of a clothing retailer is anyone’s guess.