Everything for sale. How controversial adverts work now and then

“Sell, sell, sell” is a classic call of militant salesmen around the world. The technical and psychological skills of controlling people’s lust for new things have been improving for many generations. It might seem that we know most of the market tricks, but from time to time we are surprised by the “innovative” trends of marketers.

"Greenwashing” in marketing

Today, no one is upset about the fact that every advert talks about ecology. None of a large corporation CEO (especially those dealing with oil, plastic and cars) would authorize his public appearances without assuring his lifetime commitment to the fight to protect the natural environment. This behavior is understandable. It cannot be denied that humans have a negative impact on the climate of our planet. This tragic circumstance does not change the fact that you can earn some money on it. The term “greenwashing” is a well-known gimmick for marketers. Cynical reliance on “ecology” in commercial campaigns has become not only common, but even obligatory.

Even more radical "wokewashing"

Alongside the term “greenwashin ” appeared an even more radical: “wokewashing”. This time, ecology has been replaced by social problems. Regardless of the product we are dealing with, it is obligatory to use in marketing the noble slogans of combating racial, ethnic and gender inequality. The natural ground for promoting these ideas should, of course, be social organizations, religious communities, schools, family circles and groups of friends. Unfortunately, the main actors shaping our understanding of the world are corporate advertising agencies.

We cannot escape the fruits of their labour.

The endless stream of advertisements gives us hard evidence of how progressive they are, and their hard work assures the public that their principals remain vulnerable to historical and social injustices. Being “woke”(“aware”) is meant to build and strengthen a loyal customer base.

Kendall Jenner, the youngest of the Kardashian family , with a can of Pepsi Cola in hand, stops potential racial riots. © Pepsico

It’s not hard to guess that this is just a cynical game. As a rule, “conscious” companies are not able to demonstrate how they realistically can influence their ideals of improving social life. Every advertising campaign, even when supported by the slogans of social justice, has one main goal, and that is money. For companies, noble programs are just a new, well-functioning means of reaching customers.

"Virtue has never been as respectable as money”

Mere media manipulation

Of course, no reasonable person will undermine the basic principles of marketing, the main purpose of which is to sell an idea, idea or commodity at any cost. No reasonable person will question the fact that advertisements are not intended to reflect reality, but to project a desired future. However, one should also agree with the principle that even marketing cannot falsify reality. Showing a world that does not exist is just simple manipulation. Today, in times of unprecedented and fierce ideological struggle, or – as it is called for short – “cultural war”, we show a world that we will not recognize when we step out of our own home. This is done not exceptionally, but on a regular basis.

For advertising agencies, our reality does not exist or appears to be a kind of oddity that is not worth referring to. It is not known whether it is free will, creativity, or simple populism that ads leaving workshops of marketing agencies must necessarily “contain” all the popular social problems. All this is to be elegantly packed in 25-second videos or announcements. These ads are often so absurd that they put a smile on the face, not a serious reflection on the condition of our world. Too often, instead of reflecting on real problems, questions arise: how did they manage to squeeze all the binding dogmas into one advertisement, from which country or continent were these advertisements brought to be displayed in our homes? Their authenticity is as great as that of Netflix’s historical series.

The scandalous Benetton brand

Commercialization of major social problems by omnipotent corporations is not an invention of our time. This phenomenon has existed for many generations. I would like to remind you the  company that forty years ago recognized that our problems are an excellent opportunity to increase the company’s recognition and obtain sales growth. The Italian company Benetton, causing scandals with its advertisements, achieved undoubted success on the market.

In 1982, Benetton began working with the photographer Oliviero Toscani, who previously shocked the public opinion many times. He was most famous for his 2007 campaign. The image of a naked and emaciated anorexic woman used by him in an advertising campaign aroused the approval of the fashion world and the anger of doctors. The image of Isabelle Caro, a young French woman weighing only 31 kilograms and looking like a concentration camp victim, appeared on billboards and on the fronts of Italian newspapers. The campaign was paid for by the Italian company Flash & Partners to publicize a clothing brand for young women. Head of ABA ( Research Association for Anorexia and Bulimia) described the controversial photo of Toscani as “extremely harsh”. Corriere della Sera, Italy’s best-selling newspaper, signaled its disapproval by refusing to publish the ad.

controversial benetton advert cementary with white crosses
Controversial Benetton advert, 1991 Cemetery, © Benetton 1991

Controversial adverts

The public should not be so surprised by the results of Oliviero Toscani’s work. Most of the recipients probably remembered previous projects commissioned by Benetton. Although the shocking image of the bull being killed and falling to the ground had nothing to do with the company’s products, the imprint “United Colors of Benetton” was memorized. With images of the Yugoslavian war and images of the death of the African people starving to death, Benetton used the violent emotional reaction of the viewer and based on this reaction, imprinted his brand in the minds of the audience. Benetton confirmed the psychological thesis that in order to achieve the desired effect, an advert must tug on emotions of the recipient. Emotions carry the message in advertising. The message does not have to contain any relevant information. Someone who does not know that Benetton produces clothing will not find out that from their advertising, but if they see this company’s products in store, it will trigger their memory.

For many people, Toscani ‘s advertising campaigns for Benetton were no longer just controversial. Some called them scandalous. Benetton argued that their campaigns using outrageous photos were a voice on discrimination, armed conflict, deadly disease and other global problems.

Toscani’s campaigns started a new era in the history of marketing. The artist showed that the increase in sales results from a long and consistent communication strategy. This is a strategy that Benetton used and which was very simple. One should be visible, one should be controversial, one should touch feelings and be permanently entrenched in people’s consciousness. Thanks to this, Benetton became a real record holder when it comes to boycotts against a clothing company. Controversial advertisements depicting a priest and a nun kissing each other, copulating horses or adverts in defense of HIV-positive people were repeatedly withdrawn from city streets and the press.

controversial benetton advert priest kissing nun
Controversial Benetton advert, 1991 Priest and nun, © Benetton 1991

The Swedish reaction

In Sweden, too, not everyone was delighted with what Benetton was showing. In 1993, the Ombudsman for Discrimination of Consumers submitted a complaint against Benetton to the Market Ethics Council (MER).

“The Ombudsman for Discrimination received a private complaint against white and black girl advert. The Ombudsman questions the ad and points out that it is inconsistent with good business practice and concludes that the white girl has an angelic appearance, while the black girl has a hairstyle that resembles “devil’s horns”. The complainant considers the advertisement to be offensive and racist”.

“The Ombudsman points out that the photos have nothing to do with the products Benetton sells and that some people feel uncomfortable about taking advantage of the tragic fate of people. Consequently, the question was raised whether Benetton’s advertisement was designed in an offensive manner and whether it did adversely affect the public’s trust in the advertisements, and whether it was therefore contrary to the basic principles of marketing”.

controversial benetton advert devil angel
Controversial Benetton advert, 1991 angel and devil © Benetton 1986

The Market Ethics Council (MER) confirmed that “Benetton’s advertisements have nothing to do with or otherwise contain any information about the company’s products, and do not even generally relate to the company’s business activities. The only text is the phrase “United Colors of Benetton”. However, in the opinion of MER, none of the images in question can be described as vulgar, indecent or otherwise clearly inappropriate. Even if the published advertisement arouses antipathy among some and in this sense may be perceived as inappropriate, MER cannot consider it inconsistent with the basic principles of advertising.

Sophisticated and cynical technique

Benetton’s disputes over ads does not change the obvious fact that advertising is not about real, painful concern and compassion, but a sophisticated and cynical technique to increase the consumer base through alleged humanitarian compassion and a non-racist offer. There is an obvious desire for profit behind the company’s alleged involvement. Any form of advertising is good advertising . And the more bang it gets, the better. In addition, publicity is the best and often free form of marketing.

controversial benetton advert immigrants
Controversial Benetton advert, 1986 globes © Benetton 1986

Despite the many similarities in Benetton’s marketing from 40 years ago to the current wave and various types of “washing” activities, there is a fundamental difference. Benetton was a relatively small company, almost alone in this kind of marketing. Today we are dealing with the widespread action of large companies on the wave of a global trend. Forty years ago, Benetton had the courage to oppose the trends, to take a risk, betting on something that was unique and shocking. This courage gave him fame and brand recognition. Today we are faced with widespread opportunism that cynically uses social problems to the classic “sell, sell, sell.”

How is Benetton today?

The answer is relatively simple: “it could be better.” Over time, customers seem to understand that the company probably put too much energy into marketing, and not enough into the development and quality of the products it tries to sell. 

Benetton shop in 2022
Benetton shop in 2022, The gentle face of a former rebel © Stalmar Publication

Benetton did not take over the main shopping streets of big cities. Without his extreme marketing tactics, it became just one of many brands, sandwiched between GAP and H&M.


Chicago – Maxwell Street

In the not-so-distant past, these were points on the map marking places where unusual things happened, and where revolutionary ideas were born that changed the

Read more »