The Message of Advertising
Benetton turned off Americans with its shock advertising. It may not care
If advertisings purpose is to make a friend of the consumer, as ad man Jerry Della Famina insisted in a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, what do you make of the image-making efforts of Italian apparel maker Benetton?
Best known for ads usually described as controversial, Benetton has in recent years radically restructured its operations in the U.S., a market it entered in 1982 with initial success. Most of its retail outlets here have since closed. Della Famina blames the crass sensationalism of the companys ads, which moved from racial harmony to sexual themes and, most recently, opposition to the death penalty. Benettons ads and Web site feature photos and stories of U.S. death-row inmates.
In February, relatives of victims of the inmates traveled to New York City to protest outside Benettons office there. The California Assembly has urged a boycott. In Chicago, the widow of a murdered policeman spoke out, possibly sabotaging Benettons deal with Sears to sell through its stores.
Is Benetton crazy? Or crazy like a fox? In his defense, Benetton advertising guru Olivierio Toscani who resigned in April said, I am not here to sell pullovers, but to promote an image. He pointedly rejected Della Faminas Madison Avenue ethics.
Ad agencies are obsolete; theyre out of touch with the times; theyre far too comfortable, said Toscani. They create a false reality and then want people to believe in it. We show reality and were criticized for it.
In other words, advertising by guys like Della Famina sucks up to the customer too much.
Whos the Customer?
Perhaps a more nuanced view of the Benetton approach might be found in its annual report which shows the companys worldwide sales up 10% in 1999, paying $160 million in dividends on revenue of $1.9 billion. Benetton has a presence in 120 countries.
Of Benettons worldwide sales, about 73% are in Europe. Only 14.8% are from the Americas, where sales for the hemisphere fell nearly 20%. (The rest of the world accounted for 12.2% of Benetton sales.)
While its dangerous to generalize too much about an entire continent, attitudes toward sex are generally looser in Europe than in the U.S. European countries also have abolished the death penalty.
Sure, Benetton could have come up with a more traditional ad campaign for the U.S. But perhaps theres a strategy in its apparent quest to be kicked out of the United States, a country many Europeans regard as a violent, unsophisticated backwater. Maybe Europeans will buy even more from Benetton knowing its been rejected by the barbaric Americans.
There may be no better way for Benetton to communicate its European values to its best customers. Jerry Della Famina should be proud.
by Mark E. Dixon