- MOHAMED RAFIQUE BIN RAMLAN
The United Colors of Benetton Controversial Advertising Campaigns:
An Analysis on Power of Determining the Meaning of Media Text
The need to effectively sell to consumers throughout many cultures across world borders compelled businesses to tailor their advertising strategies to appeal to different geographic markets. The United Colors of Benetton however, has been employing the opposite strategy by trying to impart a single, what the brand perceived to be universally accepted message that would generate positive responses from all consumers regardless of their geographical, sociological, psychological, cultural, and economical make-up. Ironically, historically speaking, the brand’s campaigns, which had a reputation of being controversial despite claimed as an effort to promote universally positive values have consistently sparked negative responses from their audiences (Boches, 2011). The reason for this disconnection between the expected results and actual outcomes is that the campaigns depicted perceivably negative images so explicitly that they ended up misleading the audiences away from the brand’s well-intended meaning.
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According to Hall, the apparent meaning (how the meaning is ultimately perceived by the audience, regardless whether it aligned with the intended meaning) of a media text is not solely inherent in the text itself nor the institution responsible for its production. It varies according to the interpretations of its audiences. It highly correlates with and dependent on the audiences’ cultural background, economic standing and personal experiences, and everything else the audiences had already identified and acknowledged (Hall, 1973). Hall added that the audiences are capable and often do distort the messages themselves through collective action, whether consciously or subconsciously. Thus, the audiences effectively became active participants in decoding media texts’ messages as they impose their own social context in their interpretations. Thus, the thesis of this essay is that the power to determine the meaning of a media text lies primarily with the audience. This essay analyzes three of the brand’s campaigns, focusing on the formation process of audiences’ perceptions on each campaign, which can be categorised into three different positions as proposed by Stuart Hall’s model of communication theory.
In 1980s, acclaimed photographer Olivero Toscani captured the image for the brand’s notorious campaign, which the brand claimed to be an effort to raise awareness on social issues pertaining to race and effectively promote the value of racial integration (Elliot, 1991). The print ad for the campaign portrayed a depiction of a (apparently Caucasian) white skinned girl innocently posing side-by-side with a (apparently of African ethnicity) black skinned girl. At face value, this print ad seemed to be just another print ad promoting multi-racial value. With closer inspection, the print advert added to the negative representation of black people in the media. The black skinned girl appeared to be somewhat dark and grimy. There is no representation of happiness in the look in her face. The eyes giving the expression of emotionless and cold with her insipid stare, half of her appearance hidden by dark shadows with no smile on her face and hair styled with spikes which somewhat resembles a pair of tiny horns. This connotation of obscurity is reflected to the arbitrary meaning with malicious in society. In addition, somewhat societies claimed the looks appeared to be somewhat devilish because they associated darkness with negative appearance. (Moore, 1991) However, the white skinned girl quite apparently enhanced with digital editing appeared to look happy and healthy. Her blond curly haired and a smile underneath her rosy cheeks brands her to look innocence and radiant in person. This resembles her to be styled and edited to look somewhat angelic with her cupid-like look. (Moore, 1991)
Especially in the U.S., the promotion of racial integration value from this particular print ad was less apparent in comparison to the sensational outburst created by this print ad by apparently reinforcing negative stereotypes on black skinned people. One might argue that portraying obviously negative stereotypes undermines against them rather than reinforces them, but tense racial dynamics in the United States resulted in dominantly negative perception towards the meaning of the print ad.
The intended meaning of the print lies at which Hall established as ‘the negotiated position’, where the meaning is in a position that compels the audience to both accept and reject the intended meaning. The portrayal of the black skinned girl as explicitly and unnaturally devilish proved to be counter-productive to the intention of the print ad to promote the values of embracing other cultures and ethnicities. To a certain extent, the audience do recognized and acknowledged the intended meaning, but simultaneously resisted and modified the meaning in a way which reflects their own experiences, interests, and biases (Hall, 1980). Hall stated that “decoding within the negotiated version contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements”: while the audiences somehow recognized the abstract idea behind what they were perceiving, the formation of meaning in their minds operated at a more restricted, situational condition, establishing new rules which ultimately shaped the meaning of the media text.
In the 1990s, the controversy ignited by the brand’s shocking campaign intensified. The brand’s shift in focus towards more gritty social issues ranging from dying AIDS patient to image of blood-smeared clothes (Mezzofiore, 2011) faced not only negative reaction from audiences, but sparked public protests and banned by many governments across the world. The print ad which depicted the blood-smeared clothes of a dead Croatian soldier was intended as a part of a campaign that promotes anti-war effort (Associated Press, 1994). One argument which could justify the explicitly gory depiction of the print ad is that it makes for an intense emotional appeal to the consumer, evoking feeling of compassion in them and to perceive the brand as sympathetic and with conscience, ultimately increasing brand appeal and loyalty. Ironically, the German court ruled that the print ad could not be published anywhere in the country on ground that using such intense emotional appeal to sell product is immoral (Walsh, 1995). Many audiences perceived the image as too disturbing to reflect the value of peace the brand claimed to promote and they could not make any sensible connection between print ad and the product the brand is actually selling.
In this case, the intended meaning of the campaign was within ‘the oppositional position’ when channelled through a medium ready to be perceived by its audiences. One of the prevailing philosophy of the brand’s advertising strategy was that ‘there are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality’ which reflected the brand’s effort to expose realities that people refuse to see and face. The brand’s campaign strategy relied on the assumption that the value that it is promoting through this campaign is universally positive, and that it is immune to any interpretations (whether or not they are misleading) formed by the audiences on the basis of their overall make-up. In this oppositional position, the audiences understood only the literal meaning of the image and blinded themselves from the intended meaning. The audience decoded the message and formed interpretation in a way the campaign did not foresee. The audiences’ sociological make-up has placed the meaning in the oppositional position as to what the meaning was supposed to be. Although some may actually understand the intended meaning, the text of the medium did not speak in the same language as the audiences’, thus they ended up rejecting it. (Hall, 1980)
After consistently recorded low sales, presumably due to a string of high-profile yet unpopular ad campaigns (Maguire, 2003), the brand finally employed a drastically different advertising strategy with its ‘Unemployee of the Year’ campaign in 2012 that addressed the issue of youth unemployment. The campaign was also a contest in which unemployed youths could win EUR 5,000 that they would use to implement a project that would create a positive impact on their community (Lidbury, 2012). The campaign featured a series of thematically focused print ads which depicted close-ups of youths paired with captions such as “Valentina, 30, non-lawyer from Italy”. The brand campaign “presents a realistic portrait of today’s society by actively tackling a current problem, that of youth non-employment and the potential conflict between generations, in order to show it in a new light and create value for the immense human capital of young people.” This time, the campaign generated more positive responses in comparison to the previously mentioned campaigns which were perceived as exploitations of social issues that do not attempt to create solutions.
In this case, the audiences were located within the dominant point of view where the audiences took the actual meaning of the media text directly and decoded it exactly the way it was encoded. The audience fully shared the text codes and successfully reproduced the text’s intended meaning (Hall, 1980). Since the issues of youth unemployment are arguably universal, misunderstanding during interpreting media text did not occur as both the sender and receiver have the same cultural biases. The sharp turn of strategy made by the brand was evident by criticism that the print ads for the campaign are too boring (Mahdawi, 2012) and did not represent what they have recognized the brand for: controversy. However, this criticism was overwhelmed by the overall positive response towards the brand’s effort to provide solutions to youths’ unemployment. Marketers predicted that the campaign would help the brand build a lasting relationship with its target consumers.
The Reception Theory which focuses on the reader’s reception of a literary text or media established that the process of negotiation and opposition of meaning take place when the reader is interpreting the text. A text- be it a book, film, or other creative work are interpreted by their respective audiences who are not behaving passively, but acting as active participants in interpreting the meanings of the text (Morley, 2015) based on their individual make-up. In other words, the meaning of a media text is not inherent within the text itself, but is created within the relationship between the media text and the audience. A correct interpretation of the meaning of a specific text could only occur when the audiences have a shared cultural background and interpreted the text the way the producer of the text presumed it would be interpreted. The less shared heritage an audience has with the producer of the media text, the less likely the audience will be able to recognize the producer’s intended meaning. Two audiences with vastly different cultural, sociological, economical, psychological, and geographical background will extract two very different meanings from the same text. Thus, the power to determine the meaning of a media text lies primarily with the audience.
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