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What's all the fuss about?

A Benetton advertising campaign featuring newborn babies, Aids victims and black soldiers is the latest bête noire of British liberal opinion.

Jenny McLaren thinks people should put the posters in a bit of perspective

I hated Benetton adverts before you did. I hated it when they used those soppy photos of black and white children holding hands, and multi-coloured people covered in day-glo stripes being the 'United Colours of Benetton'.

I especially hated the people who liked Benetton adverts. I used to work with some of them at an aid agency. The type who think it's really good that lots of Africans are still 'so close to nature' (ie, subsisting as hunter-gatherers), live in homes 'perfectly adapted to the climate' (mud huts) and 'prefer' to use an abacus instead of those horrid disease-ridden computers. They are the patronising people in the gaily coloured jumpers (guaranteed not tested on animals) who saw Benetton's adverts as 'positive images' which could help to combat racism.

You are probably familiar with the theory. You see something wrong with the world and you want to put it right. So you put up lots of pictures showing things the way you would like them to be, and reality should follow. Sometime.

Now, however, many strands of liberal opinion seem to have decided that Benetton's images are not positive any more. They are up in arms about the latest advertising campaign.

Gay groups and Aids charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust have condemned Benetton's use of a picture of a man dying of Aids and his family. Feminists joined the many protests which got the company's posters of a newborn baby withdrawn. The Anti-Racist Alliance and Black Briton newspaper are campaigning for a boycott of Benetton over its use of allegedly racist images, such as a picture of an African soldier holding a bone and one which depicts a white child as an angel and a black child as a little devil.

Selling jumpers

Why should a few pictures have this effect on people? Are Benetton adverts really worth all the fuss?

Marysia Wonorniecka, Benetton's British spokeswoman, has responded to the critics by claiming that the campaign is about raising social awareness. 'Rather than using their advertising budget merely to advertise the products', she says, Benetton 'wish to use it in a positive way. They are trying to break through a barrier of indifference and complacency'.

But of course Benetton aren't really into social consciousness-raising. They just want to raise our consciousness about Benetton jumpers. And they do that by using striking images.

Oliviero Toscani was hired by Benetton in 1983 to breath some life into their ad campaigns. Benetton want to have the sort of advertising trademark that is as immediately recognisable as Coke's. I think he may have succeeded.

'Singlehandedly', says Toscani triumphantly, 'we have put the nose out of joint of the ailing advertising industry'. Asked what a newborn baby and a man dying of Aids have to do with jumpers, he replied: 'Absolutely nothing at all. All it does is make people look at the adverts.'

That is the job of every advertiser; to make us look at the adverts and remember the product. They all do this by exploiting the same sort of emotions as the Benetton ads; feelings about children, fears about sickness and death, and very often prejudice about race and sex.

No big deal

The only difference is that Benetton goes in for shameless exploitation of these images, while most others opt for exploitation of a more polite variety. That's all. It's no big difference, no big deal.

And if we try to make a big deal out of Benetton adverts, who is likely to benefit? How will Aids victims benefit from this growing collective moral outrage? Are women with babies about to lead more liberated lives because some posters have been covered up?

Marc Wadsworth, national secretary of the Anti-Racist Alliance, is campaigning for a boycott because, he says, 'the way Benetton play with racist images leads to white people seeing black people as inferior'. That seems a daft argument. Whether the Benetton images do denigrate black people is a matter of interpretation - and either way, it is a matter of no consequence.

In a society where the law brands immigrants as second class citizens before they set foot in the country, and where official racism is an everyday reality, nobody needs obscure images on advertising posters to make them believe that black people are inferior. Benetton's ads are no more causing racism than its previous penchant for 'positive images' led to an outbreak of internationalism.

It is about time that everybody cut out the Pavlovian reaction to Benetton's bit of carefully orchestrated provocation. How come people are so shockable these days that they cannot take the 'odd' picture in the 'wrong' place in their stride?

Just as Benetton 'singlehandedly have put the nose out of joint of the ailing advertising industry', so too have they singlehandedly disjointed the noses of everybody from the Pope and the Israeli government to the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Anti-Racist Alliance. That seems like strange company for these British liberals to find themselves in.

The Pope has tried to get a Benetton poster banned in Italy because he could not sleep at night for worrying that its 'offensive' image of a nun and a priest kissing would put ideas into holy heads. And the Israeli authorities have banned another Benetton advert because it featured a Palestinian boy with an Israeli boy whose money box contains US dollars.

The Benetton campaign does not threaten the occupation of Palestine, nor does it cause illicit affairs in the Vatican (they have been going on for ages). But the knee-jerk reaction from the Pope and the Israeli government is to ban it anyway, because it offends their strait-laced sensibilities.

These are the sort of reactionaries I would expect to hear screaming for bans and boycotts over every little thing. It is a hallmark of their insecure pettiness and their tight-lipped, repressive psychology.

The big cover-up

Such bigotry is what the Vatican City and the Zionist state are built upon. But there is no reason why the rest of us should adopt their narrowminded standards by launching crusades to censor and cover up every picture we might not like the look of. People who want to challenge chauvinism and prejudice can surely find better things to do with their time than going on about Benetton ads.

No doubt Benetton can be branded as a producer of crappy adverts and nasty woollens. But a major barrier to the emancipation of women, black people or gays in Britain? Come off it.

Covering up the 'offensive' Benetton baby

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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