Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Behind the “Benetton” Kisses | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Doctored photos have appeared showing world and spiritual leaders kissing one another, under the simple slogan: “Unhate”.

With a promotional campaign such as this, it is no wonder that Benetton [an Italian clothes retailer] gave in so quickly, withdrew its campaign, and offered an apology as a result of the torrent of criticism it received worldwide, not to mention the threats of legal action.

However, although its advertising campaign was withdrawn, Benetton achieved one of the most notable victories in the history of marketing.

One of its campaign images that gained particular attention showed Pope Benedict XVI kissing the Grand Imam of the al-Azhar University, accompanied by the “Unhate ” slogan. True, this poster was withdrawn from the streets, but it was posted widely on the internet, causing a heated debate about the messages it conveyed, or how it appeared to the viewer. In order to justify its publicity stunt, Benetton claimed the aim of the campaign was to promote love and combat hatred, and that the posters should not be viewed from a sexual perspective. However, in reality, it is difficult to view the posters from a different perspective.

Of course, our Arab societies did not escape the impact of these images. As a result of using the image of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University as part of this campaign, light-heartedly depicting spiritual leaders and political leaders kissing one another, many people considered this to be an insult to their views and beliefs. Thus they became enraged to the extent that they posted threats on social networking websites towards those who published the images.

The “Unhate” advertisements are far from a new innovation in advertising. Rather, they are part of a wider trend of immersing commodities and trademarks into popular culture, presenting a commodity as an idea, rather than as a mere product. Accordingly, the commodity becomes synonymous with a meaning deeper than the product itself. Thus, whilst wearing Benetton clothes, one should feel love for the entire human race, with all its different nations and colours.

It is true that the advertisement and the idea is nothing more than a marketing tool, and that those who design and implement advertisements are people merely working for a wage, yet in such work we can find vestiges of art. This type of art (combining commodities with politics) has grounds for debate focussing on the question: Is it possible for the marketing world to engage in dialogue with consumers on issues that go beyond the commodity itself? In the Benetton case, will a kiss between Barack Obama and Hu Jintao be successful in initiating a large-scale dialogue and opening the door for the acceptance of others?

It is most probable that a dialogue of this sort, initiated through media messages along the lines of Benetton, is difficult to conceive in the West, and is certainly still impossible in our Arab and Muslim countries.

Whilst we discuss the ideas and values raised by the Benetton campaign, we must point out that the advertisements have done wonders to promote the company’s jackets and trousers, for it has received a level of exposure that would otherwise have been impossible through traditional means of advertisement.

Yet, with or without Benetton jackets, what is the harm in promoting “Unhate?”