United Colors of Benetton have unleashed their latest attention-grabbing campaign, and it appears as if they took a page right out of the PETA handbook. All shock value; no substance.
The ads, which contain digitally manipulated pictures of (mostly male) world leaders kissing each other with the word “UNHATE” branded across the top, are meant to promote a message of worldwide tolerance. As a gay man, I certainly don’t have an issue with the intention behind the campaign. The LGBT community’s fight against discrimination has been a global issue and political hot button recently. If nothing else, United Colors of Benetton are certainly “on trend.”
However, the manipulation of the images is a huge problem for me. Photoshopping a picture of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egyptian Imam Ahmed el Tayyeb without their consent is unethical, and it doesn’t sit well with me. If someone were to create an ad of me drowning an infant for a completely unrelated product, like frozen pizza, I would be incredibly upset. The crux of the issue is the respect of personal values.
Pope Benedict and I probably have opposing viewpoints on almost everything (except for things like drowning infants, hopefully), but it doesn’t mean his opinions shouldn’t be treated with respect. To knowingly use his image in a way that will obviously offend and upset him is tacky and inconsiderate. I can’t imagine the other world leaders featured in the campaign are over the moon about their inclusion either.
United Colors of Benetton are known for producing controversial ads, but before now, the effort never seemed desperate. The famous image of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby is a favorite of mine. It’s simple, powerful, raw and most importantly, real. No digital manipulation required. If Obama were to actually lay a kiss on China’s President Hu Jintao for the sake of fighting discrimination, it would be a historic image. But he didn’t. So UCB decided to make it happen by letting their graphic design department run wild.
Their PR team will be probably on high alert for the next few days. They already removed the Pope/Imam image due to complaints from Pope Benedict’s camp. I can’t imagine their jobs being much fun when they have to keep pulling out their crisis communications skills because the client gets a kick of creating their own crises.
I think one of the best aspects of advertising is its power to provoke and encourage discussion. But I feel like these particular ads are only going to draw criticism of the “gay agenda” (a side note – I hate that phrase). Previous UCB ads created an air of prestige and intelligence around their clothing line. These simply remind me of a giggling eighth-grade boy who has too much time on his hands.
They may be trying to spread the message of “unhate,” but I predict this campaign will have the opposite effect on the public’s opinion of the United Colors brand. Only time will tell.