By far, the Benetton Company's most controversial ad campaign to date is the one that focused on the death penalty. The 6-million-copy, 13-language campaign was launched in January of 2000 and included a magazine insert in the premiere issue of Tina Brown's Talk, billboards across the globe, ads in widely-read magazines such as Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, ads in major news publications in Europe, America and Asia, and the images were available online.
The images show the inmates alone, some reading the Bible, many with their arms folded (16). Included in the chosen prisoners is John Lotter, the man who killed Teena Brandon, whose murder was made public with the Oscar-winning movie Boys Don't Cry.
Below each of the 26 prisoners' heads is the phrase, "Sentenced to Death," along with their name, birthdate, crime and the method of execution that the courts have issued them.
The copy of the ads does not, however, reveal anything about the nature of their crimes or victims. In response, photographer Toscani said, "This campaign is not about victims. It is about the death penalty. The death penalty is unreligious. The 10 Commandments say 'Thou shalt not kill.' It is against the law (15)."
Along with the protesters, the new campaign gave the Benetton Company some financial and legal issues to contend with as well. The Benetton label was about to be introduced into Sears stores across America, but after this death penalty campaign ran, Sears pulled the new line before it even hit the shelves.
Victims' rights groups, such as Parents of Murdered Children (POMC), are appalled that the murderers are remembered in the catalog, rather than the victims. They produced their own Benetton-style ads featuring the victims, along with a Benetton logo with a slash through it.
On the legal side, Benetton was issued a civil suit from Missouri, with Nebraska, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oregon planning similar suits against the company. All of these states granted Toscani access to their prisons on the basis that his team was there to produce a photo essay and only later did they learn that the images were for an advertising campaign, and that two prisoners were paid as models for appearing in the ads.
"From my point of view, the Benetton people were not up front about what they were doing in the prisons," said Nebraska Department of Corrections spokesman Win Barber. A spokesperson for the Missouri attorney general accused the firm of misrepresentation in the way it gained access to the prisons (15).
Gonzaga School of Law professor Speedy Rice, who was the managing editor of the catalog and Benetton's legal advisor on the campaign wrote a letter to prisons asking their permission to photograph the inmates.
Rice's letter explained that Benetton would produce a "photo essay" and print 6 million copies in 13 languages, with only limited distribution in the U.S.
"No profits are generated from the publication of this photo essay," he insisted. On the second page, Rice states that Benetton "is the sponsor," and adds, "Benetton's only condition is that the inmates be photographed in their normal prison clothes and not clothing which would promote another company, such as a Gap shirt."
Because of this strong evidence, Benetton does not feel it was not upfront about what it was doing.
The commercial content of his letters, along with the previous catalogs with the United Colors of Benetton logos, must have bothered many states, because several denied Rice's team access.
"Most of the states turned us down because of the Benetton connection: Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico," Rice said, and he went on to name others. "We made two trips to Louisiana, and each time the warden said: 'I just don't like this Benetton crap. Just go away,'" Rice remembered (15).
Despite all the legal, financial and social trouble the ads caused, they are definitely still a source of controversy for the American public (unlike abroad, where they campaign won many awards).
Disgusted by the ads, some have called for a boycott of Benetton items.
"Benetton is using the blood of murder victims to promote their commodity," said Dianne Clements, the president of Justice for All, a pro-death penalty group based in Houston. "And that's despicable, actually, and I would hope that the American public reacts by buying even fewer Benetton items (11)."
The company responded to the many protests and complaints by issuing this statement: "The campaign is about the death penalty. Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral consideration, this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment, so that no one around the world will consider the death penalty neither as a distant problem nor as news that occasionally appear on TV (16)."
Toscani's images are meant to remind people that these people are human beings, just like everyone else. Benetton feels that many people seem to forget that the debate concerning the death penalty is one that directly involves real, individual people, many of whom have families, children and friends just like the rest of us.
The company hopes that, if nothing else, the campaign sparks an interest and conversation about the issue among the youth of world, especially in the United States where the death penalty is so prevalent.