Professional Jeweler Archive: The Message of Advertising

August 2000

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The Message of Advertising

Benetton turned off Americans with its shock advertising. It may not care


If advertising’s 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 company’s ads, which moved from racial harmony to sexual themes and, most recently, opposition to the death penalty. Benetton’s 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 Benetton’s office there. The California Assembly has urged a boycott. In Chicago, the widow of a murdered policeman spoke out, possibly sabotaging Benetton’s deal with Sears to sell through its stores.

Who’s Crazy?

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 Famina’s Madison Avenue ethics.

“Ad agencies are obsolete; they’re out of touch with the times; they’re far too comfortable,” said Toscani. “They create a false reality and then want people to believe in it. We show reality and we’re criticized for it.”

In other words, advertising by guys like Della Famina sucks up to the customer too much.

Who’s the Customer?

Perhaps a more nuanced view of the Benetton approach might be found in its annual report – which shows the company’s 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 Benetton’s 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 it’s 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 there’s 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 it’s 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


Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications