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Death as a Salesman: Benneton Ad Campaign Comes to Death Row

By Dan Pens

In January, 2000, Italian fashion conglomerate Benetton Group kicked off a worldwide "issue advocacy" ad campaign titled "Looking Death in the Face." The ads, featuring images of death row prisoners, sparked outrage among U.S. death penalty advocates. Which is, of course, exactly what Benetton expected. The company says that it intended the $12 million ad campaign to foster debate on capital punishment.

But controversial Benetton ads are nothing new. Throughout the 1990s the company has become notorious for politically provocative advertising. The tactic even gained a name: "shockvertising," to denote the Italian company's use of jarring images to sell its clothing: a gaunt-faced AIDS patient on his deathbed, a stallion mounting a mare, an actor and actress dressed as a priest and a nun kissing, victims of genocide and Mafia vendettas.

Benetton creative director and photographer Oliviero Toscani selected state-sanctioned murder as the theme for his latest shockvertisement. Over a two-year period he visited prisons across the United States, accompanied by Massachusetts-based freelance journalist Ken Shulman. The pair interviewed and photographed 26 condemned men in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Carolina. Together, they produced a 96-page "photo essay" that appeared as an insert in the February issue of Talk magazine.

"It's an intensely controversial subject, a thought-provoking campaign that's perfect for us," Talk magazine president and publisher Ronald Galotti told the New York Times. The magazine, a joint venture of Hearst Corporation and Miramax Film Corporation (a division of Walt Disney Co.) enjoyed a enormous publicity windfall from the controversy surrounding publication of the insert.

The 96-page photo-essay was also produced as a stand-alone Benetton catalog titled "We on Death Row." Although the "catalog" features not one stitch of a United Colors of Benetton clothing, the Benetton logo appears on every few pages. It was published in 13 languages and distributed in 60 countries. Benetton also uses death row images to produce posters and billboards worldwide.

How Toscani and Shulman gained access to the inner sanctum of America's death machine is a sore subject among prison officials. The request for access originated from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. NACDL board member and Gonzaga University law professor Speedy Rice coordinated the requests. In each state officials were told the journalist and photographer were compiling a "photo essay... designed to create a lasting record on the issue of the death penalty" as a project of the NACDL and that the project was being underwritten by Benetton.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon says the NACDL and Benetton deceived prison officials, and on February 9, 2000 he filed a lawsuit in state court against Benetton and Professor Rice, seeking damages for fraud and trespass, Nixon says that when making the request, no mention was made of a catalog, billboards or a global ad campaign.

"It's a very secure place," Nixon said of death row, "and the fact that people lied to get in concerns us greatly. What's next? Are we going to let people film sneaker commercials there?"

Benetton spokesman Mark Major dismisses Nixon's lawsuit as a political ploy. When the February issue of Talk magazine hit the newsstands, the response from outraged victim's advocates was immediate and impassioned. They accused Benetton of glamorizing murderers while ignoring their grisly crimes. So furious was public reaction, in fact, that Sears, Roebuck and Co. abruptly canceled an exclusive contract to sell a line of Benetton clothes, calling the death row images "terribly insensitive."

Given the outcry, Major argued, it was inevitable that state officials try to distance themselves. Attorneys for Rice and Benetton echo the same sentiment. "I don't think they'd be suing if Benetton had printed the photos (with the caption) `It's high time these prisoners were executed,"' said Rice's attorney, Leslie R. Weatherhead.

Weatherhead and Majors both say that state officials were given copies of other photo essays Benetton has sponsored, so they would have known the "United Colors" logo would appear on the images. As for the billboards and magazine ads, Major said, Benetton decided to expand the campaign to include them only after completing all of the death row interviews.

"At the very least, you'd have to prove that there was something false, and it was known to be false when it was stated," said Benetton lawyer Charles E. Buffin.

So far, Missouri is the only state to sue over the death row photos. But a Kentucky prison spokesperson echoed the complaint that Benetton was "not up front about their intentions" in requesting access to death row prisoners, and North Carolina Attorney General (and gubernatorial hopeful) Mike Easley announced that his office would be investigating the legality of the ads.

Nebraska's prison director, Harold Clarke, said: "The project was described as a photo essay with copies of the publication to be printed in different languages and distributed primarily in Europe and Asia, with limited distribution in the United States. Benetton was indicated as the source of funding." He added: "In retrospect I believe that the department was misled and deceived. Certainly Benetton's intentions were not clear to us..."

Perhaps prison officials were not so much "misled" as they were clueless about the impending political firestorm touched off by even "limited distribution" of the Benetton death row photos in the United States.

One thing can't be denied Benetton (and Talk magazine) gained more exposure through "hard news" coverage of the controversy surrounding the ads than they could possibly have gotten from the ads themselves.

And who can measure the impact the campaign -- which tended to "humanize" death row prisoners -- had on public policy and the shift in the U.S. towards death penalty abolition? The same week Talk magazine hit the newsstands, Illinois governor George Ryan issue a moratorium on state executions, saying: "Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty -- until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing lethal injection -- no one will meet that fate."

Sources: New York Tames, Los Angeles Times, National Law Journal, Associated Press, Omaha World-Herald

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