“La Pieta”, United Colors of Benetton’s most controversial campaign.

Maria Griva
Mar 9, 2018 · 4 min read
“United Colors of Benetton” logo.

United Colors of Benetton is a fashion brand with global recognition. Based in Ponzano Veneto, Italy, the company’s name comes from the Benetton family consisted by three brothers and two sisters and has seen incredible recognition since 1963.

Up to 1982 the advertisment campaigns of the company were based on traditional model posing photography showing of the brand’s clothes. However, after Benetton’s colaboration with award winning photographer Oliviero Toscani the advertisment policy will change forever. Benetton decides from them on to focus on world issues to raise awareness and create an added value for the brand.

What’s wrong with that you’ll ask?

Their approach throughout the years has spread controversy across around the world and has been the center of negative discussions eveywhere. Saying that, we can surely now understand why their marketing policy has been described as “shockvertising”.

“United Colors of Benetton” advertising campaign 1991

United Colors of Benetton ventured into controversial territory in 1991 with the publication of “Pieta”, a photographic expose of the reality of AIDS. The photo of AIDS activist David Kirby was taken in his room in the Ohio State University Hospital in May 1990, with his father, sister and niece at his bedside. The photo was taken by Therese Frare. Frare included the black and white photograph in a photographic documentary on the lives of clients and caregivers in a hospice for people with AIDS. The photograph was included in LIFE magazine in November 1990, and went on to win the 1991 World Press Photo Award.

Original photograph of David Kirby’s final moments.

Tibor Kalman, working with Oliviero Toscani, was preparing a consciousness-raising campaign associated with Benetton products and culture. He saw the Frare photograph in Life Magazine and suggested that Benetton include it in their advertising campaign. Benetton approached the photographer and Kirby family, gaining consent for the use of the photograph and contributing to an AIDS foundation. When considering whether to stay with black and white or go with color the creative team decided that it needed to look like an advertisement, raising the shock value.

The ‘Pieta’ ad certainly had an effect!

On one hand the advertisement won the Europen Art Director Club award for the best 1991 campaign and the Houston International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award. The print was exhibited in American, French, Italian, Swiss and German museums. In 2003 the photo was included in the Life magazine collection ‘100 Photos that changed the world’.

There were many negative reactions however. A number of AIDS activists believed that the photograph and its use in advertising actually painted AIDS victims in a negative light, spreading fear rather than acceptance. Others perceived the campaign as a vindication of homosexuality. For some there was sensitivity about the implied connection between the deaths of David Kirby and Jesus.

David’s parents, Bill and Kay, took part in the press conference called by Benetton in the New York Public Library and while the world’s opinion of this image remained split between accusations of cynicism and approval, and many magazines had already refused to print it, David’s mother said: “We don’t feel we’ve been used by Benetton, but rather the reverse: David is speaking much louder now that he’s dead, than he did when he was alive.”

According to Benetton, “In some countries such as Paraguay this was the very first campaign to talk about AIDS, and in many countries it was the first campaign to go beyond purely preventative measures and touch upon subjects such as solidarity with AIDS patients.”

Michelangelo’s “La Pieta”

David Kirby’s photograph displaying his last moments on this earth bears great resemblance to Michelangelo’s sculpture “La Pieta” . David almost dead in his ather’s embrace seems as if he is Jesus after the crusifiction lying in Virgin Mary’s arms.

Toscani said, “I called the picture of David Kirby and his family “La Pieta” because it is a Pieta which is real. The Michelangelo’s Pieta during the Renaissance might be fake, Jesus Christ may never have existed. But we know this death happened. This is the real thing.”

Overachievers: Maria Griva, Maria Kall, Antonis Katsis, Eva Constantinou, Nickos Pan, Thanasis Papadopoulos

Betty Tsakarestou Lina Kiriakou

AD DISCOVERY AND CREATIVITY LAB

Advertising and Public Relations Lab (#ADandPRLAB) Publication to cultivate a culture of curiosity, experimentation, co-creation and impact digital storytelling for students, professionals and academics. We explore the new futures in communication, branding, and digital media

Maria Griva

Written by

Dept. of Communication, Media & Culture * Panteion University * Athens, Grecce

AD DISCOVERY AND CREATIVITY LAB

Advertising and Public Relations Lab (#ADandPRLAB) Publication to cultivate a culture of curiosity, experimentation, co-creation and impact digital storytelling for students, professionals and academics. We explore the new futures in communication, branding, and digital media

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