- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 22, 2000

There is a very compelling reason not to write about Benetton, the Italian-based clothing company known for cause du jour ad campaigns war, AIDS, racism featuring photographic imagery so consistently and calculatedly shocking that it long ago reached the point of ho-hum: The company is a publicity hound. It continually seeks new ways to make the media sputter, whether it is unfurling a giant condom on a Paris obelisk, or depicting Ronald Reagan as an AIDS victim. On the other hand, it is at least as compelling to note, for the record, new lows in banality and pretentiousness, particularly when they come in letters 20-feet tall posted a couple of stories over Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. A quick glance upward is enough to realize that death row inmates are Benetton's latest enthusiasm, trumpeted by the slogan, "We, on death row," accompanied by a series of photographs of American prisoners sentenced to death. The truly shocking thing about Benetton's latest project is that the company actually believes it is performing some kind of meaningful public service. "Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral considerations," its press release intones, "this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment." To do so, it continues, the company is showcasing "the present of those without a future," in hopes of "giving back a human face to the prisoners on death row," and reminding people that "the debate concerns men and women in flesh and blood, not virtual characters eliminated or spared with a simple click, as with a video game."

What execrable rubbish. This so-called "debate" about capital punishment omits the essence of the argument the victims themselves, who, in all too many cases, thanks to these same death row prisoners, have not only no future, but no present, either. Still, the Benetton brain trust probably thought that the copy quoted above sounded pretty good, even downright profound. Too bad they didn't consider how poisonous their words would sound to a real person who has actually lost a dear one or beloved friend to one of the many convicted killers so carefully lit, photographed and interviewed by Benetton for billboards and magazines, including a 100-page supplement received by subscribers of Tina Brown's Talk magazine.

"Benetton," Benetton writes, "has once again chosen to look reality in the face by tackling social issues as it did in previous campaigns… [blah, blah, blah]." It is one thing for Benetton to dabble in stylized agit-prop, using models earning generous rates to enact poses conceived by luxuriously clad fashionistas. It is another to play at twisted mind games with real people whose crimes brought tragedy and pain into innocent lives.

It is well worth noting also that when Benetton had a real-life chance to make a genuinely uplifting difference, it chose to duck. Last fall, Benetton came under pressure from top Palestinian Authority officials and Arab-American groups engaged in a reprehensible effort to revive the economic boycott of Israel. Having pressured Ben & Jerry's Israeli subsidiary to stop using water from the Golan Heights, an Israeli Burger King franchise to take down the company name from a restaurant in a Jerusalem suburb, Sprint to pull an ad campaign that depicted the Temple Mount as being part of Jerusalem, and Disney to remove all references to Jerusalem as Israel's capital at Epcot Center (in the good old U.S. of A.), Arab groups brought similar pressures to bear on the Italian clothing corporation. As a result, Benetton canceled its plans to open an affiliate-owned clothing factory in the Israeli settlement town of Barkan on the West Bank. It is much easier, of course, to pretend to a social conscience with big posters and glossy paper than it is to take a risk and make a stand for principle.

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