Benetton's United Colors Adoption (1989)


In 1989, Benetton officially adopted the trademark, “United Colors of Benetton,” initiating and formalizing more than ten years of strategy to radically transform the face of conventional advertising. In place of the product, Benetton presented powerful and problematic visual images of social issues of universal importance such as environmental disasters, peace, AIDS, terrorism, murder, tolerance of diversity and struggle against racism.

Benetton’s advertising campaigns and social communication strategies are a clear echo of contemporary culture and society. Benetton’s United Colors Campaign transformed the traditional notions of advertising so that the goal is no longer to simply sell their products, the brand name, or to create a desire.

Instead, their campaigns promote social concerns, critiques,s, and ideologies.

Since Oliviero Toscani, photographer and creative director of Benetton advertising, arrived at the company, controversy has accompanied every campaign. Since then, campaigns have been based on photographs and journals. The use of crisis-torn images for commercial ends is what causes disturbing to audiences, but has allowed Toscani to use a commercial medium for humanitarian ends.

Because of the mentioned above, Benetton moreover than being just a clothing store has become a social entity. Where is not only having a relationship with people because of fashion, but also has established relationships through sports (basketball, rugby, volleyball, and cars), and social concerns around the world?

We, On Death Row! is a $20 million project. Created by Benetton in association with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the international death penalty abolitionist group, Rome- based Hands Off Cain.

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The campaign contains 26 photographs of people on death row with their names, ages and execution day over the words (sentenced to death’. This campaign has already appeared in the Talk magazine with a special 100 pages brochure along with interviews (innocent interviews) made by the journalist Ken Schulman (a collaborator of the Newsweek magazine). This pictures has also appear on billboards, posters, newspapers and obviously available in the Benetton web page.

There have been a great variety of reactions and opinions regarding these images. And because of this it is important to mention the positive and negative aspects about the campaign, establishing it in a global perspective (not with an American perspective). | am analyzing the campaign in a global perspective, because it is not a campaign targeted only to the U.S. public. It is a campaign designed to target people throughout the world. And even though the campaign was ‘produced in the U.S., the U.S market is not the only one and even more it is not the principal market.


First of all it is important to mention that the reaction has occur only in some places, specially the death penalty states. In other places is little noticed (like for example Washington state).

This kind of reaction it is mainly a reaction in the U.S. because for example Italians, longtime opponents of the death penalty, increasingly are crusading against its use abroad. Over the coming year, Rome’s colosseum is to be lighten up for 48 hours every time a death sentence is suspended anywhere in the world or a country abolishes the death penalty.

The arguments in favor of capital punishment center around: Jan eye for an eye. What kind of argument is this? The campaign is about the death penalty. Leaving aside any social, political or moral consideration, this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment) (Benetton, Looking). The real goal of the campaign is to ” put a human face on individuals this country is looking to execute and to create a dialog on the issue of punishment, regardless of the crime the individual committed,” Speedy Rice a professor of law at Gonzaga University in Spokane,
Wash., who served as NACDL’s point man on the project and coordinated the visits with corrections officials, inmates, and their lawyers explained. “This isn’t intended as a slight to the victims or families. We just wanted to focus on the punishment.” Itis difficult to me to understand what is the real conflict in the people who disagree on the campaign. But the only answer | can put to this is that only here, in the U.S. people feel threaten by having the pictures of the killers in the streets, because they can recognize them as killers. But the real concept behind the people on death row is to humanize the punishment. To treat it not as a name of a game, but make it reality. (Even when reality not always is Unicel.)

The have the support of the U.S Commissioner for Refugees and a human rights activist, which said that campaigns like Toscanils were (Welcome.! And this is not the only organization that is in favor of Benettonils campaign but also all of the organization that helped Toscani to realize the project. Such as NACDL.

Only 200 out of 7,000 stores are in the United States.

One of the arguments against the campaign is the fact that the campaign was more of a report of the convicts, not covering the crime of the convicts and therefore Uglorifies! them, like if advertising was not able to cover those types of issues. At the essence of many of the criticisms surrounding the advertising lie culturally assumed differences between the responsibilities and the ethics of news journalism and advertising. Many people believe that journalists, not the creative director of fashion, are better suited to explore controversial topics. But Benettonils advertising challenges that journalists are in the selling and communications business too. When journalists focus on strange and serious topics, nobody criticizes them for trying to sell their stories to the media. Yet, when an advertisement touches on a real problem, everybody is immediately up in arms and protests that it’s in bad taste. It seems that an advertisement that misleads the consumer with deception and lies is considered more correct.

For journalists selling newspapers is the priority. We think that we are buying the truth, but at the end, they are just selling a product. So journalism is at the end selling stories, For Toscani, Benettonis advertising campaigns are equally justifiable, He says that Benetton is selling knowledge about cultural and social problems and at the end somebody else sells the sweaters.


The state of Missouri has already sued the company for misrepresenting the purpose of the interviews with death-row inmates and for false claims that those gaining prison access for the interview were from Newsweek magazine. They also said that the company (Benetton) had deceived the state while using death row inmates in its advertising campaign. (ABC News, Missouri)

Another issue here in the U.S. is the fact that 10 states had already decline the campaign in their states. This obviously is a negative thing because one of the main goals for an advertising campaign is to reach people. And loosing one fith of the U.S. population it can be very significant for the reach numbers only in U.S.A.

One of the tnegativet aspects of Benettonis campaign is that there is no link between the campaign and the products the company makes and sells. Clean-cut, brightly colored sweaters are a long way from a death row inmate. Traditional marketing tells us that such a distance between advertising and products is dangerous, yet the Benetton campaign does to promote the company and its brand. But this is the line that Benetton had drawn since 1988; it has been a strategy where issues and not clothes play the lead part.

Victims groups, are making fun of the campaign as 1United Killers of Benetton! are threatening Sears Roebuck with a boycott in the belt unless the department store chain removes its Benetton line from the racks). The second top retailer store in the U.S., Sears Roebuck will stop selling the Benetton line from its stores. Benetton with this has lost the market of this huge market, meaning a lot to the sales of the company (Benetton) in the U.S.:

Benetton has also produced violent reactions with other campaigns. The specific problem with this campaign and in this country is that the pictures of the convicts were taken here in the U.S. And that this convicts have made a terrible wound in people from this country. It is not easy to walk down the streets and see the pictures of the murder of your daughter, son or a friend. 1Victimst rights groups said the ads glorified convicted killers and were insensitive to victims’ families and friends. (Pro-death


This is not the first time that Benettonis camping cause protest in fact in 1993, AIDS groups in Francs sued over Benetton ads that showed the words “HIV positive” on various body pars, calling them “commercial exploitation of suffering.” Also in the 1990s, the Roman Catholic Church protested a campaign that featured models dressed as a priest and a nun kissing, and some human rights groups condemned ads that showed what was supposed to be the bloodied clothing of a Bosnian war victim.

By all that Benetton is aware of the controversy that some of its campaigns have caused, but it is part of their believe and of its goals. Their goal is to sell knowledge about cultural and social problems and create controversy. | donit think that after more than ten years of following this same line and criteria they will stop because one of the countries in which they have a minority of stores, disagree on the campaign.

What | would do if | were on the same position is continue with the campaign the way it was planned. They have never canceled a campaign, and they will not cancel this one. If some states wonit let them show their campaign, they will continue to the states in which they can show it. | dontt think that it is a big threat for Benetton not to show its campaign at some points in the U.S. It already a very wellpositioned and known brand, that will sell with or without the campaign.

On the other hand, the way they are doing their campaigns since 1989 is with the support of great organizations such as the U.N. This makes the campaign not only a marketing campaign for sweaters, but also a social campaign that enhance its name as a social entity aside from the commercial.


Advertising is the richest and most powerful form of commercial communication in the world. It is arguably one of the most persuasive forms of global communication and a significant site for cultural production. Advertising is a mirror of our past as well as an indicator of where we are going as people, nation or as a cultural group.

All commercial images have a social meaning and an impact. Nobody has done an analysis of the harm done by stupid advertising and its twisted value system. A lot of insecurities are caused by the stereotypes in those images, and advertising is very influential in the education of our youth. Toscani said: “You have to get all the lies through, and everybody accept that. As soon as you come up with something that really exists, everybody get offended.” (Stuever)

The company created an artificial hyper reality that dramatized the worlds worst aspects, while simultaneously grabbing our attention and thus exposing and selling their brand name

It is an implicit suggestion that Benetton cares about the controversial issues and wants to see a discussion about these topics. There have been a great variety of reactions and opinions regarding the individual images. It is not the provocative content of the United Colors campaign that disturbs people; itis the ambiguous intent of the images and their commercial framework. Although Benetton recognizes this uncomfortable situation, they find it to be not only profitable but also a way to express their ideas. It is not the images themselves what is seemed offensive, but is their use within the narrow context of advertising.

Scandalous violence in the news is normal. But when you take the same picture and put a Benetton logo on it, people pause and reflect on their position and the effect becomes more aggressive. In this specific situation the idea of capital punishment makes us feel safe. But the reality of itis as brutal the crimes it is intended to vilify.

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Benetton's United Colors Adoption (1989). (2022, Jun 11). Retrieved from

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