This research examines ethics issue fronts presented by the January 2000 United Colors of Benetton’s advertising campaign, titled “We, on Death Row.” The advertising took the form of a Benetton’s sales catalogue, billboards, and posters, and featured photographs of death-row inmates at various state prisons and an accompanying essay describing their plight. The campaign, like previous Benetton’s ad campaigns, fused social-issue advocacy and sales promotion and incited public controversy. Its subject matter gave it a higher public profile, however. Sears, Roebuck & Co., a longtime retail customer of Benetton’s, cancelled orders in protest (White, 2000, p. 62), and the state of Missouri sued Benetton’s for misrepresenting its marketing strategy as journalism. This research examines ethics implications raised by the campaign and its fallout.
Benetton’s, an Italian maker of trend-setting clothing, has long been associated with a promotion strategy variously described as “campaigns designed to provoke outrage” (Clark, 2000, p. 43); “emotional branding” (Tomkins, 2000, p. 10); “attempted pedagogy, in the form of the slipperiest, most evanescent medium of all” (Lippert, 2000, p. 36); and “in-your-face,” “shock,” or “shock-value advertising” (Hughes, 2000, p. 10; Ollivier, 2000; Betts, 2000). The strategy, supervised by fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani, involved “unconventional subjects” and themes of social controversy, such as interracial romance, ethnic war, AIDS patients, and death-row inmates: “Some defend [the ads] as fearless social activism, while others say they are nothing more than crass exploitation” (Hughes, 2000, p. 10).
Mixing social activism with advertising has distinguished the Benetton’s brand, though “the more Toscani’s work has strayed from the product being sold and assaulted us with reality, the more controversy it has stirred up” (Ollivier, 2000, emphasis added). Most complaints about the death-row campaign “…