Advertising and society

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Advertising and society

Graham Murdock

Department of Social Sciences


The Benetton campaigns caused public stir for almost two decades, until the company finally touched upon a topic that was too much for the public and the company’s profits. Their use of somewhat shocking imagery in the context of advertising was something new to the advertising trade as well as to the public, and managed to get Benetton’s advertisements banned in many countries time and time again. The morality of using serious issues to promote sales of knitwear was seen as outraging and immoral, but it also gained a lot of publicity for the company. This essay attempts to explore the case of Benetton by first discussing the conventional ways of advertising and then looking into the advertising of Benetton. It continues to study the reasons behind people’s outrage at the advertisements and discuss whether Benetton was making a “mockery” of serious issues.

Advertising as we know it

Advertising in its most traditional sense is a way of promoting a product, to make it known to people and to persuade them to buy it. It can also be used to polish the company image. In the case of governmental campaigns, advertising aims at informing people about social issues and changing their attitudes and behaviour (examples include anti-smoking campaigns and AIDS campaigns). One of the roles of advertising is to differentiate the product from other similar ones in order to make it more appealing to the audience. In order to find the right target audience for a product, advertisers employ marketing research. This is to ensure that the advertising appeals to those people who would be most likely to buy the product or who would be the type of people the company wants as its customers, to retain a certain image. (Brierley, 1995)

Nowadays advertising is not merely about promoting the sales of certain products, but creating and adding images to products and furthermore, creating and promoting brands and brand images. Advertisements for different globally recognised makes of footwear, for example, rarely provide information on the qualities of the product itself, but instead they attempt to convey different ideas of what the brand and product represent, which the customer is invited to identify with. Thus carrying a certain label on your shoe will tell other people what kind of a person you are, as they recognise the brand and associate it with the “ideology” conveyed in the advertisements.

The visual landscape of advertising has become more and more provocative and also controversial in the last two decades. In order to get noticed, advertisers need to use imagery that will gain people’s attention. The images of naked bodies, in conjunction of selling different products, both male and female, are beginning to be a part of the visual scenery that people come across everyday, on billboards, magazines and even television. Sexual imagery is hardly a taboo anymore, and it is used to increase the sales of products from a variety of ranges.

However, there are still issues which in the context of advertising manage to raise not only the interest and eyebrows of a few people, but strong disapproval and even fury, of the people in this media and visual imagery saturated age. Benetton campaigns did this for a number of years, bringing more and more “shocking” images to the eyes of the public, in the frame of advertising for clothing. However artistically acclaimed some of the advertisements were, they raised questions and opinions about the role of advertising and the immorality of using imagery of for example human suffering for promoting sales.

Stretching the limits: Benetton campaigns

The Benetton Group was founded in 1965, prior to which it had been a small family company selling colourful knitwear. It has now grown to be an internationally successful clothing company, whose turnover in 2004 was nearly 1,7 billion euros. However, there has been a steady decrease in the company’s turnover from the 2 billion in 2000 ( Its product line has expanded to include four different brands, with the product range covering for example underwear, accessories and perfumes, in addition the trademark knitwear. Although they produce clothes for different target audiences, the emphasis has remained on young people as the main customer group. It has been able to establish a brand that is recognised in numerous countries around the world, mainly due to campaigns that are easily identifiable as Benettons. This mainly thanks to the green logo. This is very much due to the ideas and visions of Benetton’s now former creative director Oliviero Toscani, who was given the sole authority to design Benetton’s campaigns for 18 years.

When Toscani started with Benetton in the early 1980’s the campaigns did not differ significantly from other fashion advertisements; the showed pleasant and happy looking people wearing Benetton clothes, in other words Benetton’s approach was a rather traditional and “simple” way of advertising. Toscani, eager to move away from the use of professional models and conventional imagery, was the creative force behind the launch of the United Colors –campaigns, showing people of different ethnic backgrounds together, conveying the ideology of unity and equality of all people, although these images have actually been criticised of reinforcing stereotypes more than promoting tolerance (Wells 1997). However innocent those ads may seem today, they raised controversy in countries sensitive to racial issues, e.g South Africa. The United Colors of Benetton was the new slogan, that would be repeated in white, on a green backgound, in the corners of advertisements. The logo soon became the only feature in the United Colors campaigns to actually link the advertisements with the product and the manufacturer.

Toscani’s advertisements adopted a new approach in the 1980’s when the clothes were completely removed from the images, which dealt with issues such as war and AIDS. One campaign featured a new born baby, another one, which raised great controversy in the US, a black woman breast feeding a white baby (we can only see the woman’s upper body). The culmination of Toscani’s work for Benetton was the 2000 campaign, which employed American prisoners as “models” and the slogan “we, on death row”. It cost Benetton a contract with the American store chain Sears and led to Toscani’s departure from the company.

Benetton’s advertising had stepped far away from what could be considered traditional product and brand advertising. The product had been removed and replaced with images that were usually seen in the context of news coverage and documentaries. In fact, Toscani used photographs previously published in relation to news coverage for some of the campaigns. Using this kind of imagery led many to strongly disapprove of and disagree with what Benetton was doing, accusing them of exploiting serious social issues and human suffering to promote their business and increase sales. The Vatican based newspaper L’Osservator Romano stated that “Benetton is making a mockery even of death”. The reaction is understandable, however the issue is perhaps more complex than the accusations might lead to believe. This kind of shock advertising might actually be a sign of a societal change in the Western world, where consumption has become nearly a religion and advertising is all around us.

Cold-blooded capitalism vs social consciousness

The dilemma of the Toscani’s Benetton advertisements seems to reflect people’s attitudes towards advertising as something limited to the commercial world. Certain issues have simply been excluded from advertising imagery, and placing them there may well seem as mockery of those issues. However, Toscani seems to take his work and his themes very seriously indeed, pressing the fact that these images are seen on television screens every day, the only difference being that they are shown in the context of news and documentaries. Instead of making a mockery, Benetton claims that their advertising communicates social issues, giving them the publicity they deserve. Toscani himself has appeared sincere in conveying his visions and his personal views through Benetton’s advertising. The relationship between him and Benetton has been suggested to have that of an artist and a patron, although there later appeared to be a limit to the patrons tolerance of the art he was supporting.

Thus it could be argued that it is the linkage between business and these images of the darker side of human life that causes the unease with Benetton advertisements, and it is difficult to come to terms with this kind of advertising simply because it has never been done before. People have their own “frame” of the world, and in that frame, advertising is supposed to refrain from using the kind images that belong to the news coverage imagery. Also many may feel that bringing these kind of issues into the forum of advertising will actually make them less “shocking” in time and easier to pass by and ignore, as people get used to seeing pictures like that even in fashion advertisements. Tinic (1997) talks about the “commodification of social issues” in her article on Benetton, stating that “…the significance of cultural problems is perceived to be minimized or tainted by their association with the realm of commerce”(5).

Perhaps the public also feels in a way betrayed or insulted because it did not ask to see those pictures, and people find it upsetting that they actually are upset by them, as O’Reilly states in his article “Advertising or exploitation”. The images come as a surprise in a context where they were not expected, in advertising. However, Toscani has repeatedly claimed that his work is not actually advertising and that he finds that “The advertising industry has corrupted society” (Tinic 1997:9), and clearly the link between the product and the advertisement has been missing in most of his campaigns, however, it is the green logo that stands as a reminder that it is in fact a “profit organisation” that is informing people about the dangers of AIDS or promoting racial equality. As Tinic claims: “The implicit contradiction between the aims of public service and the goals of commerce underlines the controversy created by Benetton ad series” (1997:11).

The visual landscape of everyday life has changed radically as the consumer culture has gained ground, and it could be argued that the time probably was ripe for the Benetton campaigns, that in a way it was a logical step forward. The target audience of Benetton, the youth of Europe, is actually rather aware and concerned about social problems around them, and this kind of campaigning might be actually something very easy to relate to for such an audience (and profitable for the company). (Tinic 1997) Perhaps in the future social issues will become a more common theme in advertising, as companies want to appear as the most caring and aware (in some cases this kind of development is already in process), presenting issues that the (young) consuming public are concerned about.

It could also be useful to consider the “sterility” of life in the 21st century as a reason for people’s disapproval of Toscani’s pictures. People are not used to seeing the beginning and ending of life, and all the evil that can happen in between, so close up anymore as was the case in past centuries, when both ends usually took place at home. It could be argued that people nowadays are estranged from the brutal realities of the human life, to the extent that they are disgusted by a picture of a new born baby and the images of death in process. By bringing these themes to a forum where they are hard to avoid, Toscani has outraged people by showing them something very essential of being human. Advertising as a medium for this, in turn, is rather useful, since it probably reaches more people than for example exhibitions would. It is also an essential part of our culture and popular culture, and therefore actually a very logical medium for this kind of controversial imagery.

However, the fact that Toscani left (or was asked to leave) Benetton only after the death row advertisements can not be overlooked, and it could be seen as the final limit that cannot be crossed. However wide controversy the earlier campaigns raised, Luciano Benetton stood by his artist’s side until it actually started to have a negative impact on his business. This is a reminder of the cold realities of the consumer culture, that ultimately the sales figures are what matters the most. In any case, Benetton brought up an important issue of the role advertising in this age and time, which rather than mockery, could be seen as a step forward in discussing important social issues in the global village of the 21st century.


Benetton can be seen as either very cunning in its advertising operations, making profits out of other peoples suffering and gaining free publicity in newspaper stories, television and dinnertable conversations about its “shock ads”. Or it can be viewed as a company with a conscience, aiming at bringing important issues to peoples awareness and gaining sympathy and support to those in need. The imagery can be seen as mockery or a healthy wake up call to modern western people, living lives seemingly sheltered from war and disease. Either way, the fact that Benetton has taken up the role of a pioneer in that kind of advertising and that the discussion surrounding them has on its part unveiled the extremely important position of advertising in society and also taken the idea of consumer culture to a new level, which need not be seen as a negative step forward. In this sense, mockery is quite far from what they are doing. In the next years it will be seen whether this step will lead to a new kind of advertising culture or whether it was merely an “experiment” that sprung some imitators but did not do enough to catalyst fundamental changes.


Briefly, Sean (1995) The Advertising Handbook. London: Routledge

O’Reilly, John, Advertising or exploitation? The Guardian, Sept. 21 1998

Ramamurthy, Anandi (1997) {Extract from} ‘Constructions of Illusion: Photography and Commodity Culture’ in – Liz Wells (ed) Photography : A Critical Introduction. London.Routledge, pp 188-198.

Tinic, Serra A. (1997) ‘United Colors and Untied Meanings: Benetton and the Commodification of Social Issues’ Journal of Communication, Vol 47, No 3, Summer, pp 3-25.

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