Shock, anger follow Benetton's controversial kissing ads

 Benetton kissing ad shows Obama and Hugo Chavez in a manipulated photo.

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

Benetton's ads showing world leaders kissing each other on the mouth has caused an uproar in various parts of the globe, angering the Vatican enough to take legal action. The ads are part of the company's "Unhate" campaign -- and yet another example of "shockvertising" by the Italian clothing company.

The poster-size ads were unveiled in major cities including New York, Milan and Paris on Wednesday.  The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday about the digitally manipulated images in the ads, two of which show President Obama kissing Hugo Chavez, above, and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

[Updated, 11:58 a.m., Nov. 17: The White House had a succinct response to the Obama ads. Spokesman Eric Schultz told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday: "The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes."]

The Vatican quickly said it would take legal action to stop the distribution of the photo montage featuring the pope and Ahmed el Tayeb, the head of Cairo's Al Azhar institution. And Benetton just as quickly removed ads in Italy showing Pope Benedict XVI in a tight clasp with the imam, who grips the pope on the back of the neck as they kiss in one doctored photo.

On Thursday, Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, had this to say in a news release:

The damage that Benetton did is done — the offensive photo of the Holy Father and the imam is posted on the Internet. Benetton has a history of not only being edgy, but of being anti-Catholic and vulgar: in 1995, its magazine Colors featured Christmas holiday ads promoting such gifts as a bull's testicles and a metal instrument used to abort unborn children. The Catholic League quickly condemned Benetton at the time.

Benetton gets no points for withdrawing the pope-imam ad. It knew what it was doing, and we know from past experience what its intent was. What is particularly striking about all this is that the ad campaign was launched to promote tolerance. Guess its hatred of Catholicism is so strong that even appeals to tolerance cannot stop it from fostering intolerance.

But Benetton's previous ads haven't all been about religion or politics. There have been allusions to racism -- three hearts (which were actually pig hearts) with the words "white," "black" and "yellow" -- as well as war and capital punishment.

In early 2000, Benetton's "We, on Death Row" ads featured death row inmates. Victims-rights groups were appalled, spurring Sears to pull an exclusive line of Benetton clothing from its stores.

Then there was the 1990 photo by Therese Frare that became a company ad. It showed a deathbed scene with AIDS activist David Kirby as he was dying of the illness. That photo stirred controversy as well -- with its similarity to a pietà (a  painting or sculpture showing Mary grieving over the body of Christ).

Benetton has maintained that its latest campaign aims simply to promote love.

Calls and emails to Benetton were not immediately returned Thursday.

Not all kisses are about love, though. For some, the images may smack of "The Godfather" kiss.

As Al Pacino told John Cazale: "I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart."

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-- Amy Hubbard

 

The UNHATE campaign is an invitation to people around the world to combat the “culture of hatred” that exists in the world today. We are giving widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of ‘the other’ and of what is unfamiliar. Our goal is to inspire closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures and the peaceful understanding of each other’s notions. For anyone who hates this campaign, we ask them to unhate.

 

Alessandro Benetton, Executive Deputy Chairman of Benetton Group SpA

 
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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal


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