May 2008

If anyone ever needs an image to define the word “taboo” or “controversy, I think this would be it.

This ad begins to apply cultural or religious rhetoric that evokes issues of values, judgments and secondary stories.

I am not Christian or involved in any type of church so I might not fully understand the religious implications of this ad but I do know that this would make people upset.

As far as ad effectiveness goes, I think Benetton might have pissed more people off with this ad then even they could imagine. I can only fathom the amount of controversy that this ad stirred up, them amount of people that talked about this ad, and United Colors of Benetton. As I have learned in my marketing class, free press is good press, whether its negative or positive. It gets people talking about the company and their product. It ends up that the people who are most upset by these shocking ads give the company the most publicity. It’s a little ironic and maybe unfortunate in some cases, for those companies that really don’t deserve it, but in my opinion I think it’s a great move on Benetton’s part.

I don’t think this ad really helps their image as far as corporate rhetoric goes, or rather if it does than I think the point may be lost on a large part of their audience.

It’s important to remember who sees these ads and where they see these ads. As there are no United Colors of Benetton stores in New Mexico (I think the closest store is in Houston, TX), they have no priorities to market in this state, and which is why many people probably haven’t seen these ads in real life (maybe only in a book or somewhere on the internet as a reference for something else). What’s odd to me is that I used to live in Houston and in India (where they also have stores) and I never saw any advertising for the store, I did however see these ads in New York City. They use the huge billboards and blow these images up to monstrous proportions so they can be seen from miles away (if a building or another billboard doesn’t get in its way!).

I think it’s interesting that Benetton is so picky with the target audience that they market to. As can be seen with this ad of the priest and nun, it’s very important to think about the target audience. In a place like New York City this ad can be taken for what it is, an artistic attempt to bring up taboo social issues. In a place like Houston, with its mega churches like Lakewood Church and devout followers of Joel Osteen (who recently turned the Rockets basketball stadium into his church complete with televised services!), I think this point might be totally lost and possibly cause the store to go out of business in the area. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if this ad was somewhere along I-25 here in Albuquerque! I recently showed this ad in my marketing class and, unsurprisingly, got very few positive responses from my classmates.

All in all I think it’s important for a company to pick a stance and stick to it, unless of course its not working at all, then they might want to consider repositioning. Otherwise it says a lot about the strength and power of a company that can show an ad like this (and this isn’t even the worst!) and still continue to gain market share every year. Benetton is currently Italy’s largest clothing manufacturer and the company is going strong on 42 years of business with no signs of slowing down or backing off. At this point it doesn’t really matter whether I think the ads are effective or not, that fact alone tells the world that Benetton has found a marketing strategy that works for them.

Just a note about my sources… all of the images and information about United Colors of Benetton can be found on their corporate website They have so much information about the company, including financial statements, press releases, company history and their plans for the future on there. Other than that, I have taken information from my English 220 class on Advertising Rhetoric at University of New Mexico. To see lecture notes you can go to,

I have also taken some information from my Marketing Management 322 class also at University of New Mexico, although it was mostly what I have chosen to retain after completing the class, I have not directly quoted my teacher or my notes in this blog.

The rest of the writing is a combination of my thoughts, opinions and experiences and most of all a reflection of what I have learned about advertising rhetoric in my class.


When I look at this image I begin to make social and cultural connections between the image and my brain to figure out what the overall message of the ad is supposed to be. I know I already talked a bit about this in the ad with the girl and the doll but I think this ad deserves a deeper look at this main point. 

I was trying to figure out why this ad makes so much sense, why the message seems so obvious to me when there is really nothing but the image to base my information off of…lemme back up and begin by explaining what I think this ad is about. 




So I know its a United Colors of Benetton ad, because their logo is plastered on the side, but instead of just using an artfully composed image like the girl and her doll, this is more of a poster or ad with a purpose. It’s purpose it to advertise this World Food Programme called “Food for Life.”

I would say with this image, Benetton is not trying to advertise their clothing or even trying to advertise themselves as company that sells anything. I think they are trying to establish their corporate rhetoric, even more so than in their other ads.

I really think they are trying to attract customers and create brand loyalty with customers that have specific social values, which are reflected in this World Food Programme that they are supporting. Maybe a consumer who is already involved in programs like this or who is already part of this socially conscious culture would see this ad and become attracted to United Colors of Benetton because they support the same causes that the consumer does.

I think in many cases companies under estimate their consumers and their capabilities. Benetton’s main competitor in Europe, H&M, has started a campaign that supports AIDS, Gap has been doing the (RED) campaign to support something (I’m still not really sure what they are trying to do) in Africa, but Benetton is one of the only major clothing companies that really follows through with their campaigns. They actually make the campaigns about the issues, and then hope that support for their clothing line will follow. Gap sells these clothes with distinctive logo’s for their RED campaign and supposedly a percentage of the money will go to Africa, but Gap makes sure that they still are making a profit on these clothes and on top of that they hardly have to pay for advertising thanks to celebrities like Oprah and the fact that everyone is walking around with these logos on their shirts. 

With that said I want to talk about the visual aspects of this ad and why it works so well. David Mackenzie Ogilvy talks about print ads in his book Ogilvy on Advertising (1983) and all of these rules that apply to print ads, which I think are a little outdated. I know this hasn’t been talked about in class but I can’t talk about this ad without mentioning cause-related-marketing, which actually was started in 1983 by American Express ( Actually the main part of Ogilvy that doesn’t apply to this ad are his thoughts on ad copy, which he thinks is really important to have in the ad. For this ads purposes the image and headline speaks for itself… there I finally got to my main point! 

The consumer doesn’t need ad copy and extraneous information to distract them, they just need this bracing image to say it all. Going back to the basics of visual rhetoric our minds fill in the gaps between what we see and what is stored in our minds to create a full picture. 

The spoon tells me this man is hungry, his lack of clothing tells me he may not have money and both of these things put together tell me his basic human needs aren’t being met, according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which states that physiological needs such as food, water, sleep, breathing and shelter are the first needs that must be met (A.H. Maslov, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50 (1943):370-96.).

The fact that the spoon is attached to his hand, and is actually in place of his hand, tells me that this eating utensil is more valuable to him than his hand at this point. 

The title, “Food for life,” brings up an important idea that is scarcely mentioned in American culture, the theory of eating to live rather than living to eat.

While I, as a consumer, might rather blindly buy products and enjoy looking at the eye candy of fashion ads, I, as a person who spent five years going to school in India and has first hand seen the hunger and poverty at its worst, would much rather support a socially conscious company like Benetton. 

I feel like even if I didn’t like their clothes I would still want to buy something from them to support them, which coming from a poor college student is a rare statement! In other words, I think this ad and the theories put into play behind the ad are very effective for me. 

United Colors of Benetton has eliminated their clothing from their advertising campaigns and have been focusing on social issues of global concern since 1982 when Olivero Toscani began working for the company. They have come to rely solely on the visual rhetoric of their ads and the ideas that their images stand for to promote their company and ultimately sell their clothes. (benetton website)

When an advertising company puts out a print ad they have to create an image that can stand on its own without the special effects or sounds of the television. Print ads usually show up on billboards or in magazines where the consumer is being bombarded and effected by a million different visual elements at once, so the image of a ad really needs to stand out and stick in the consumers mind. United Colors of Benetton has gotten the concept of “shock advertising” down to a science. They show images that either revolt consumers, tug at their heart strings, or provoke new ideas of thinking.

This particular ad of a young girl, covered in dirt, practically naked and holding on to a doll, tugs at my heart strings. The first thing I see when I look at this image are those big brown eyes looking directly at me, challenging me and making me feel guilty about the clean clothes I’m wearing and the coffee that I am drinking while I sit in the coffee shop and worry about getting my homework done before I can go ride my bike tonight.

What feelings does this image evoke for you?

I bring all of this up because when we look at an ad we don’t just look at it, but we look through it. In order to figure out what the ad is really about we, as consumers, our brain has to make connections between what we see and our personal experiences and values to complete the message of the ad.

There are no words in this ad, other than United Colors of Benetton logo, in fact, there are no connections to United Colors of Benetton besides for this logo, so the consumer is in complete control of how they interpret the image. The symbols of the image begin to stand in for what the ad really means and what the ad is really trying to promote.

This brings me to the corporate rhetoric of United Colors of Benetton. Every element of this ad stands for what Benetton is trying to promote through their advertising. Luciano Benetton, the founder of Benetton Group (which owns the clothing brands United Colors of Benetton, Under Colors of Benetton, Sisley, Playlife and Killer Loop) says “The purpose of advertising is not to sell more. It’s to do with institutional publicity, whose aim is to communicate the company’s values…we need to convey a single strong image, which can be shared anywhere in the world” (

Benetton is one of those few companies that actually practices what they preach. Unlike their competitors such as Gap and H&M, Benetton designs, manufactures, and retails all of their clothing. According to the company’s website, they are currently Italy’s largest clothing manufacturer. They don’t outsource labor to third world countries while Gap and H&M do and have been widely criticized for. This image makes me think about poverty and the cheap child labor that is used in third world countries

This ad is effective on many different levels. While it doesn’t show me the clothing or get me excited about their fashions, I am intrigued by their values and I have formed a respect for the company.