Can Benetton regain cool quotient with controversy?

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‘It’s got a Zara store!’. A 20-something friend of mine said excitedly, referring to the newly opened Phoenix Market City in Bangalore. The excitement with which she said, ‘Zara!” was palpable. Obviously the mall was considered cool because it housed a Zara store. Many years ago, Benetton perhaps evoked a similar reaction in India. As a rookie in advertising, I remember coveting a Benetton shirt – its logo on the shirt pocket a loud testimony of ‘cool’. Of course that was when competition among Indian fashion brands was scarce and an ‘imported’ brand was sought after. Now for both men’s & women’s fashion there are options galore to suit every budget and demand. Mango, for example evokes an irrational desire among urban women.  A Diesel or a Levi may appeal to some. In this context, I would say that Benetton has lost its sheen over the years. After visiting their stores in India recently, I felt totally underwhelmed – be it in terms of style, range or value.

Benetton was once cool. It’s iconic advertising for United Colors of Benetton played a significant role in imbuing the brand with a certain attitude. That phase of advertising was meant to shock and fuel controversy too (remember the ad featuring a man dying of AIDS?) and evoked polarizing reactions. Many hated the fact that a brand used ‘misfortunes of others’ (dying man) and shocking images (new born baby, horses copulating) to gain public attention. Hidden among such campaigns were images that struck a positive chord too – especially those conveyed that differences amongst us (African American vs. White) were artificial and need to be broken down.

The brand moved from simply portraying an unconventional image in its advertising, to one associated with a ’cause’. AdAge’s Eric Lyman wrote in 2001:

Though Oliviero Toscani worked as Benetton’s creative director for 18 years from 1982 through to 2000 –
he will probably be best remembered for last year’s headline-grabbing campaign based on photos
and information about some 26 death row inmates from six U.S. states. Toscani and Benetton say
the international “We On Death Row” campaign was aimed at drawing attention to the controversy
surrounding the use of capital punishment in the U.S., where support for the death penalty is nearly
as universal as opposition to it is in Toscani’s native Italy.

Over the last 10 years, Benetton got off the controversy bus. I can’t recall a single campaign of Benetton’s over the last few years that created a buzz. Also, several fashion brands have either gained ‘desirability’ among the youth or courted controversy in their advertising. Diesel with their ‘Be Stupid’ and Wrangler with their ‘We are animals’ campaign come to mind.

Advertising that is meant to shock and get talked about in the media is not a new tactic. It is usually adopted by a small brand seeking to get public attention quickly In 1995, an ad for Tuff shoes featuring a nude Milind Soman & Madhu Sapre (NSFW) had to be pulled off after it created a furore. Recently, a campaign for Flying Machine was debated in the media for its innuendo. The benefits of such an approach are obvious: (a) making it to the headlines quickly (b) free publicity. In today’s world the publicity factor is even more with blog posts, tweets and sharing on social media of controversial campaigns…especially those which use disturbing or shocking images. But the negative impact must be factored in too, especially if the campaign involves the use of well-known celebrities, senior statesmen, religious symbols etc. Or if the campaign is simply in poor taste.


As far as the Unhate campaign is concerned, it has achieved the first objective of any advertising campaign: get noticed. And how. Any brand manager would give his left arm for his brand to be featured on the front pages of the world’s leading newspapers and discussed on TV shows, blog posts and social media. So, full marks to Bentton for that. When I asked for a response to the Benetton campaign on Twitter, it evoked a mixed response. While some said its working simply because being indifferent to a brand is worse others thought it wouldn’t help the brand gain cool quotient.

The larger objective of the campaign is:

UN-hate. Stop hating, if you were hating. Unhate is a message that invites us to consider that hate and love are not as far away from each other as we think. Actually, the two opposing sentiments are often in a delicate and unstable balance. Our campaign promotes a shift in the balance: don’t hate, Unhate.

Now this is where an element of ‘force-fit’ comes in. For me, it screamed, ‘see how cool a brand I am?’. Which is fine if it were the response, but it fails when its the stimulus. A lot of brands (Amnesty International, several publications) have used images of world leaders in their advertising. But when they are shown in a lip lock, you are fully aware that there will be a backlash and the images have to be pulled off. The signal for me is that it was meant to be a gimmick anyway (since the campaign is likely to be released in paid media only for a few days perhaps) and the larger cause behind it was just an excuse for publicity. Result: the brand loses some sheen. Also, images of global leaders are used only in the print campaign, not in the TVC. It tells me that they were prepared for the contingency of having to pull the print campaign off. But pulling an expensive TV commercial would have been that much more difficult. With a print campaign only the cost of Photoshopping is a worry.

So while the campaign may get publicity for some time to come, combined with changing market scenario and a ‘dated’ feeling to the campaign execution, I doubt if it will help Benetton become cool again. What say?

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  1. I agree with your views, sir.
    I think it will petrify people and anyone wearing UCB might even get a couple of stares!
    More importantly amidst all the nose, I think 'Unhate' got lost somewhere.

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