The above image shows an advertising campaign by United Colours of Benetton referred to as the Un-Hate campaign which appeared in 2011. The campaign shows a number of digitally edited photos of highly influential men and women kissing, in this image we see Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egyptian Grand Imam, Ahmed el-Tayyeb. Other images from the campaign included Obama and Hugo Chavez, Kim Jong-Il and and the South Korean President as well as Sarkosy kissing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Benetton, an international name in clothing and knitwear based in Italy, are well known and recognised internationally for having published many controversial and shocking images in their campaigns. The tradition of using startling often political images as advertisements for the brand started when they hired Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer, who ran their advertising campaigns from 1982 – 2000. Today it has become a calling card for the brand. When this image was released, the Vatican forced Benetton to withdraw the image from their series taking legal action against the brand.
So why did such a little kiss cause so much uproar?
Let me introduce you to semiotics, the study of signs.
Semiotics is the idea that signs reference real things, an image has denotations, what you are actually seeing in the image and connotations, what the image actually makes you think.
So an image or signifier invokes a thought related to the image or connotation. The sign that starts this can be a word, an Icon or a Symbol, for example the word DOG is a sign that has connotations of the animal that runs around and goes ‘woof!’
Still confused? heres a groovy graphic.
So in Benetton’s image of the Pope and Imam what we see (the denotation) is the Pope and the Imam leaning together with their lips touching, now where it gets interesting . The reason this particular image is so controversial is because of all the connotations that the image creates. Major reasons the image has created uproar is that there are homosexual connotations in two men kissing, the religious iconography of the two highly anti homosexual Catholic and Islamic religious leaders creating a homosexual suggestion which creates an imbalance and causes confusion and opposing ideas for the viewer. It is such a strong image because it takes two very contradictory connotations,and places them together, that of what the religious leaders stand for and what they mean, and the kiss. The act of kissing could be a coming together of two opposing sides which aside from sexual connotations holds references to friendship, love and family. It is a uniting image, uniting two opposing sides in an act that both sides would find difficult to digest. Hence the campaign title, UnHate.
So does shock advertising sell clothes?
Benetton uses shock tactics not to warn or frighten as many adverts do, but to sell clothes. How can photos of aids victims and bloodied soldiers uniforms possibly make Benetton’s clothes more appealing then the competition? There are three things that large scale campaigns like this aim to do and that is to make the brand memorable, make a stand and make it representative of a certain group of people to whom they can then sell. The political bent of the ads appeal to an audience who feel they are aligning themselves with the campaigns of Benetton by purchasing their clothes. It makes a person feel better about buying clothes from a company who brings controversial but generally what would be considered ‘worthy’ campaigns to the forefront of the public domain. So in a nutshell, people will remember Benetton and potentially feel good about buying there clothes, all because they were a little bit shocked by one of their ads.
Here are a few older Benetton campaign pictures for your viewing pleasure, all surrounded by controversy at the times of publication from 1980’s to 2000, created under the Direction of Oliviero Toscani
1990’s United Colours of Benetton Campaign:
Food For life Campaign:
Death Row Campaign: