Multiliteracies in ELA Classrooms

Shockvertising: United Colors of Benetton

October 1st, 2012 · 4 Comments

Link to image:

Over the years, United Colors of Benetton has released a series of controversial ad campaigns in order to create awareness about certain social justice issues. The most recent ad campaign from their “Unhate” series depicts manipulated images of world leaders kissing to promote world peace. Until 2000, the man behind the camera for Benetton, Oliviero Toscani, revolutionized the purposes of advertising by combining commerce with social awareness as exemplified in the images above. In Lesley S.J. Farmer’s “I see, I do: Persuasive Messages and Visual Literacy”, she encourages educators to give students the tools to interpret images in a critical way since “mass media producers who understand the language and connotations of visual literacy can manipulate images to elicit desired responses” (Farmer 30). Such critical analysis of images is valuable when reading advertising that is targeted at the consumer’s bank account. However, I find that the process becomes more complicated and challenging when presented with the startling images of the United Colors of Benetton ad campaign.

“Shockvertising” becomes a double-edged sword when the image repulses rather than invites the very consumers or audience that the advertisement is targeted at. Critics have labeled Toscani’s ad campaigns as “shock advertising” due to the shock value used in his images to bring about awareness of social justice issues. It was rumoured that Toscani left the company in 2000 following uproar towards Benetton’s ad campaign surrounding the death penalty in the U.S. Department stores began boycotting Benetton’s products, which led to Toscani’s departure from the company. In a recent interview with CNN, Toscani stated that a shocking photograph does not exist, but rather “there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren’t there.” His statement left me questioning the challenging issues that arise in analyzing these images. When does reality become “too real”? Why does reality or “true” depictions of different subjects disturb us?

Depicted against Toscani’s distinct sparse white background, the advertisement that shows a newborn in its most real and unwashed state at birth was the most “shocking” image to me. The image was included in Benetton’s 1991 AIDS ad campaign to raise awareness of child deaths due to the disease. While some have claimed that it was one of the most natural and real depictions of life, the image still remains startling, unreal, and repulsive to me. Though eye-catching, I am not sure that the image invites me to soberly consider the issue of child deaths and AIDS. However, I find that Toscani must be doing something of value as he claims that “people get shocked because they aren’t really civilized yet, because they don’t want to belong or face the problem of civilization. Maybe it’s the duty of the photographer to shock them, bringing in front of them something that they probably don’t want to look at” and “there they are and you have to come down with yourself.”

Tags: Visual Literacy · Weblog Activities

4 responses so far ↓

  • Katie // Oct 2nd 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Wow, the images of this ad really are shocking. I went to the link expecting a Benetton clothing ad and that is definitely not what is here. Actually, I looked at the link before reading your post and was completely confused. I thought this was going to be an ad that might have been posted across the storefront windows of any Benetton store… that was shocking. Thank goodness for the explanation is your post.

    For me, the newborn baby wasn’t very disturbing. Maybe because when I first saw the ad, it was out of context. However, the image of the three hearts beside each other with the words ‘white,’ ‘black,’ and ‘yellow’ on them was the most shocking. Actually, I found myself comparing them in great detail to see if there were any differences… like size or variations in shape. I suppose any differences would be based on the individual person anyway. Anyway, it just goes to show that sometimes people look for differences even when there is no foundation for it. If I began comparing the three hearts, what would someone who already had strong racial prejudice do with that image? (Just a random, silly thought)

    Anyway, the other images, the one of two people kissing did not seem very shocking to me. Are the people Amish? Is it a surprising thing to see an Amish couple kiss? However, the last image, to me, was shocking. Anyway, the message I got from all of this was just that racism is wrong; all other meaning was lost… I assume this is because the images that addressed racism were too powerful to give me time to find meaning in the others. On the other hand, it might be that this group of images put together is just a little bit too much to take in. Either way, it is definitely persuasive media.

  • dinouye // Oct 2nd 2012 at 9:26 pm

    These definitely pack a strong impact. Katie, I think the one you’re referring to is a priest and a nun kissing. They raise many interesting questions: how effective are these in promoting social awareness message? how effective are they in promoting sales? does shock sell when there is no relation to the product? is it in some way a hopeful, constructive provocation? these are about much more than selling a product, they’re about creating a corporate image. and what a way to gain (free) publicity from such controversy! It has been proven by some psychologists that the effect of shock benefits memory and influences positive behavior. Very interesting indeed.

  • TMD // Oct 3rd 2012 at 9:17 am

    Thanks for the outstanding post! Benetton’s campaign reminds me of Dove’s campaign for “Real Beauty”:

    The advertising is more than a little ironic, as Lauren Dye (2009) argues in her article, “Consuming Constructions: A Critique of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty”:


  • Shockvertising | Sylvia's Branding Goodness Blog // Jan 18th 2014 at 10:43 pm

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