United Colors of Benetton is no stranger to controversy where its ad campaigns are concerned. In the late 80s and 90s, art director Oliviero Toscani ensured that Benetton was one of the most recognisable brands on the high street, thanks to his provocative visual approach. The adverts produced under his direction were both lauded for their commitment to diversity (Toscani ensured a range of skin tones were represented) and condemned – in some cases banned – for what many saw as exploitation (one image showed a man with Aids on his deathbed, while another featured prisoners on death row). Recent tweets from the brand’s official account have also come under fire, as they show photographs of migrants, including one in which people are being rescued at sea, branded with the Benetton logo.
Benetton sent out each photograph along with a credit for the source – one is the Italian news agency ANSA, the other is the French charity SOS Méditerranée. There is no accompanying caption or form of explanation as to what the photographs are supposed to represent, or whether they are indeed part of some sort of new campaign. SOS Méditerranée issued a statement on Twitter, in which the organisation thoroughly condemned the use of its images by Benetton: “SOS Méditerranée fully dissociates itself from this campaign which displays a picture taken while our teams were rescuing people in distress at sea on Jun 9… The dignity of survivors must be respected at all times. The human tragedy at stake in the Mediterranean must never be used for any commercial purposes."
The Pool reached out to Benetton for comment, inquiring as to why the images bore the brand’s logo, and to what end. The response from a representative for Benetton simply said, “We bought the photo from a photographer of SOS Méditerranée.” No further comment has yet been provided.
Toscani rejoined the brand earlier this year, 18 years after he created the campaign featuring death-row inmates, which ultimately led to his departure. Are the tweets, then, a return for Toscani to the provocative ads for which he became so well known? This remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that the displacement of human beings is an ongoing humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. To use this for commercial purposes, if this is Benetton’s intention, would not be a provocative political statement. It would be exploitation, pure and simple.