Oliviero Toscani’s job title was Creative Director and Photographer for the Benetton Group starting in 1982. Under the direction of Oliviero Toscani, the Benetton Group had a very questionable advertising campaign. The Benetton Group used shock advertising until Oliviero Toscani’s final campaign about death row inmates. Customers and retailers alike did not approve of this particular advertising campaign. This happened in the year 2000 and caused Toscani to leave the company. The Benetton Group has since switched their advertising to more traditional methods under the direction of James Mollison (Ganesan 2, 8-10). There are certain basic objectives of advertising. When Benetton used shock advertising, it had both pros and cons. There are still certain companies that use shock advertising today, but not to sell clothing and accessories.
There are many basic objectives of advertising. The main basic objective of advertising is to convince the customer to buy the product or service that the business is selling. Our textbook defines marketing objectives as, “what is to be accomplished by the overall marketing program.” (Belch 33). The objective of most advertisements is to solve a problem or concern for the customer. Another objective is to make sure that no one is offended by the advertising. The advertising should show the product or service in a positive light that will somehow benefit the customer. Our textbook describes public relations as it relates to a positive image as follows, “generally has a broader objective than publicity, as its purpose is to establish and maintain a positive image of the company among its various publics” (Belch 25).
Before they hired Oliviero Toscani to be their Creative Director and Photographer, they used an outside advertising agency. It saved Benetton a lot of money to do their advertising in-house. Luciano Benetton, one of the original owners of the company, approved all of Oliviero Toscani’s work (Ganesan 6). The main advertising objective for Benetton while Toscani was in charge of it was to make the public aware of controversial social and political issues (Ganesan 1). These issues were at the heart of the advertisements, while the Benetton label looked like just a footnote in the advertisement (Ganesan 6,7). Some people may not even have known they were advertising for Benetton. Viewers must interpret the message advertisers are trying to communicate to them. Our textbook discusses the clarity of the advertising message by stating, “Many ads are objective, and their message is clear and straightforward. Other ads are more ambiguous, and their meaning is strongly influenced by the consumer’s individual interpretation” (Belch 121). Benetton’s shock advertising could be interpreted differently depending on each individual person. This relates to the concept of selective comprehension. Our textbook discusses selective comprehension by stating, “Consumers may engage in selective comprehension, interpreting information on the basis of their own attitudes, beliefs, motives, and experiences” (Belch 122). The purpose of advertising is to convince the customer to buy your product or service. Unless the product or service the company is trying to sell relates to a particular social or political issue, it should not be mentioned in the advertising. Benetton’s product symbolism was the social and political issues that it was trying to make the public become aware. Our textbook discusses product symbolism and states, “For many products, strong symbolic features and social and psychological meaning may be more important than functional utility” (Belch 61). After Toscani left the company, they focused more on traditional advertising where the product was the central focus, along with a positive look at an issue (Ganesan 13). For example, the advertising campaign after Oliviero Toscani left centered on being a volunteer [Figure (x) on page 10]. Some other issues addressed after Toscani left Benetton that weren’t portrayed in a controversial way included worldwide hunger, protecting human rights, poverty, and child labor (Ganesan 10,14). Social and political causes were Benetton’s message (Ganesan 1). Our textbook states the following regarding a company’s message, “The encoding process leads to development of a message that contains the information or meaning the source hopes to convey. The message may be verbal or nonverbal, oral or written, or symbolic” (Belch 148).
There are both pros and cons to Benetton’s shock advertising campaign. One of the pros of Benetton’s shock advertising campaign is that it attempted to educate people on the various social and political concerns happening at that time. The customers watching the advertisement may pay closer attention and start talking about the issue. It gives viewers a forum for open discussion of an issue (Ganesan 1). Shortly after Oliviero Toscani started working at Benetton, the social issues such as people of different races doing things together and getting along were the primary focus. These images portray positive ways of thinking and encourage unity among different races (Ganesan 4). For example, Figure (i) that is shown on page 4 has a multi-racial group of people smiling and hugging. In addition, Picture 4 on page 15 of the adult white hand against the child’s black hand are appropriate, positive images. Although Figure (viii) on page 8 looks a little unpleasant, the message is positive and a little uplifting. Nevertheless, as more time went on, the advertising campaign headed by Oliviero Toscani started to get disturbing, especially when it was concentrated on the political issues. One of the cons of Benetton’s shock advertising campaign is that the images shown can offend some viewers (Ganesan 13). Children do not really need to see some of those images. The overcrowded Albanian ship shocked me (Picture 11 on page 16). It just made me realize that all those little dots shown on there were all people-individual human beings. Picture 15 on page 17 was a little shocking also because all those little dots on there are portraying real people who have AIDS. Some of the images I saw offended me and I really did not want to look at them. In particular, Picture 5 on page 15 with the white angelic-looking girl next to the black girl with her hair looking like horns. I do not see any purpose to this advertisement. This picture is the total opposite of the prior pictures that encouraged racial unity. It looks like, that in this case, Benetton is being inconsistent with their previous advertising. The campaign glamorizing death row inmates [Figure (ix) on page 9 and Picture 13 on page 17] was the most shocking. This was the same campaign that caused Oliviero Toscani’s departure from the company, for good reason. Fifteen million dollars was spent on this campaign that offended and shocked so many people. (Ganesan 2, 8-10). This advertising campaign used the death row inmates as shock value in order to sell their product. I do not understand what showing death row inmates has to do with selling clothing or accessories. Some issues do not need to be addressed, especially worldwide, through an advertising campaign. They lost retailers, particularly Sears, and were sued by the victims’ families. This is a direct result of their insensitive advertising campaign. This entire advertising campaign has caused bad publicity for the Benetton name (Ganesan 8-10). Our textbook discusses negative publicity by stating that, “Publicity is not always under the control of an organization and is sometimes unfavorable. Negative stories about a company and/or its products can be very damaging” (Belch 24). That is what happened in this situation with Benetton. It put their name out in the public, but in a negative light. It also tainted their reputation (Ganesan 2).
I definitely do not agree with Oliviero Toscani’s opinion that it is acceptable for offensive images to be in art and journalism, so therefore offensive images should be acceptable in the advertising industry. Offensive images are not acceptable in art, journalism, or advertising. One of the objectives of advertising is to try to persuade customers to buy your product or service. I do not understand how an image of a newborn baby with their umbilical cord still attached [Figure (vi), page 7] persuades the customer to buy Benetton clothes.
An advertising campaign that uses shock advertising is the anti-smoking commercials. This is appropriate because they are trying to let the viewer know the consequences of smoking and inform viewers that smoking may eventually kill you. Some people do not believe that bad things will ever happen to them. Seeing a commercial like this may really shock a viewer into quitting smoking to improve their overall health. Some of these commercials are very difficult to watch without having to turn away. For example, the commercial they currently show where they cut into the brain of a person who was only in their 30s to show that they died of a stroke from smoking. Another anti-smoking commercial that sticks in my mind that really shocked me was when they showed the artery and squeezed out all the plaque that was built up from smoking. The message of this commercial was to show that smoking builds plaque up in your arteries, which will eventually kill you. Anti-smoking advertising also uses fear appeals to try to stop people from smoking. Our textbook discusses fear appeals and states, “Fear is an emotional response to a threat that expresses, or at least implies, some sort of danger. Ads sometimes use fear appeals to evoke this emotional response and arouse individuals to take steps to remove the threat” (Belch 197).
A commercial for something that actually has something to do with a controversial social issue is when shocking advertising would be acceptable to use. It shocks people into doing something about the problem. For example, the commercials they have on television now for the ASPCA that show animals that have been hurt or are suffering. Those commercials shock you because of the abuse the animals suffer. But, they are a charitable organization that is soliciting funds for the ASPCA to help these animals, so that’s why they are acceptable. The images they show on the commercials are related to the cause they are trying to get money for. The animals have no control of how people treat them. This tugs at the heartstrings of people who love animals. The song “Angel” plays in the background and the singer Sarah McLachlan comes on to speak out against animal abuse and neglect and asks for donations to the ASPCA. Another shock-advertising commercial that they show frequently on television is for The Humane Society of the United States. These commercials have the same sort of message as the ASPCA. These commercials shock me and stick in my mind because I remember the image of the overfilled cage of dogs shown on them.
Another scenario where shock advertising is used and is acceptable is for the Christian Children’s Fund. The commercials show children that are dirty and living in squalor in order to solicit funds for their charitable organization. They show a child living in shocking conditions and ask the viewer to sponsor a child for just a certain amount of money per day or month. The commercial states that many children have died just because they are poor and do not have enough healthy food or clean water. These commercials are usually aired late at night and the announcer says something about how the viewer should do it right now while they are just watching television and have nothing else to do. They do want the viewer to put it off until tomorrow because it will be too late then. It is appropriate to use shock advertising when a charity or non-profit organization is using it to solicit funds for their organization.
I whole-heartedly agree with Benetton’s decision to stop their shock advertising and return to advertising that is more traditional. There is a time and place for everything, and shocking people in order to sell clothes is not it. If Benetton’s goal was to bring controversial issues to the attention of people, it should have been done in a separate forum. And, if Toscani insisted on shock advertising, it should only be in an adult-type setting where children do not have to see images that offend adults. An alternative could have been to set aside a minimal amount of their advertising funds into the shock advertising and the rest into traditional advertising. A company should want to put a positive image in their advertising to sell their products, not negative images that some people may think of as offensive. These shocking images are probably the images that people remember most in their mind and therefore forget what the product is that the company was trying to sell.
Benetton’s shock advertising was negative and offensive to many people. Viewers may remember the advertising because of the shock value of it. However, we may never know how many people really remembered that those shocking images were an attempt to sell Benetton clothes. The basic objective of advertising was not met under Oliviero Toscani’s direction. There is no logical reason to try to sell clothes with images that have nothing to do with clothes. There are times when shock advertising is appropriate, but selling Benetton clothing and accessories is not one of them.
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