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Correctional departments upraged by Benetton

Source: Salon News, 2000-04-17



Oliviero Toscani and Benetton certainly grabbed the public's attention with their latest ad campaign, "We, On Death Row." Masterminded by Toscani, the campaign zeroes in on the issue of capital punishment with intimate photographs of 26 convicted killers who await their execution. Accompanied by text that never reveals the nature of the inmates' crimes or anything about their victims, the $20 million campaign, which has just finished in the United States, has stirred up a critical and legal tempest.

Sears, Roebuck & Co., Benetton's longtime client, has stopped selling its products. The California Assembly has called for a boycott against the Treviso, Italy, company. Victims' rights groups, such as Parents of Murdered Children (POMC), are appalled that the murderers -- one of whom is John Lotter, whose killing of Teena Brandon was portrayed in "Boys Don't Cry" -- are remembered in the catalog, rather than the victims.

"They make victims out of the murderers," says Greater Portland, Ore., member Mary Elledge. Her POMC chapter will run a series of Benetton-style billboard ads that will feature the faces of the victims. Benetton's name will appear, but it will have a stroke through it.

The company may be in legal hot water as well. 2 months ago, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, a pro-death-penalty Democrat who is up for reelection, slapped a civil suit against Benetton for trespassing and misrepresentation. At the time, it seemed imminent that other states that gave Toscani's team access to their death-row inmates for the campaign would join Missouri's fight: The New York Post reported that Nebraska, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oregon were threatening to launch civil suits on similar grounds.

All of these states granted Toscani access to their prisons on the basis that his team was there to produce a photo essay -- only to discover later that the death-row shots appeared in a Benetton's advertising campaign that began last January, and that 2 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.

Benetton is unfazed by the backlash. "When the Missouri guy tries to say that he didn't know it was Benetton, it's either a baldfaced lie or they've got to be the dumbest people put on the planet," says Gonzaga School of Law professor Speedy Rice, who was the managing editor of the catalog. He also served as Benetton's legal advisor on the campaign.

Toscani is equally unapologetic. "I'm not a judge. I'm not a social worker," he 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. "

Benetton and Toscani were already notorious for their unorthodox ad campaigns -- the mixed-race models, multicolored condoms, newborn babies, dying AIDS patients -- but the death-row ads moved the firm to a new level of controversy. They show convicted killers in their prison garb, glaring at the camera. Above each of the prisoner's heads is the phrase, "Sentenced to Death," along with the prisoner's name, birthday, crime and the method of execution that the courts have chosen for them.

While some accuse Benetton of commercial exploitation, these images, which appeared in such magazines as Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, hardly seem designed to win the clothing maker new loyalists in a country that overwhelmingly supports the death penalty. In real estate terms, the ads don't seem a clever use of expensive, downtown space, although Toscani insists that they've won the firm new business to make up for the loss of Sears and other clients offended by the campaign.

The Benetton-ad drama began in 1998, when Toscani approached Rice, a death-penalty opponent, to enlist his help in producing some sort of Benetton anti-death-penalty project. They met through Hands off Cain, an Italian movement to abolish capital punishment. In the past, Rice has worked to persuade the European community to boycott states that support the death penalty.

Last winter, on Toscani's behalf, Rice wrote to Department of Corrections officials across the country to gain access to the death-row inmates. Along with what was basically a form letter sent to all the states involved, Rice presented the credentials of Toscani and the essay writer, Newsweek stringer and National Public Radio producer Ken Shulman. The pair, he explained, planned to produce a photo essay, or catalog, on the prisoners that would be published by Benetton.

"The point is not to portray the prison or conditions," Rice wrote, "only the inmates themselves." Rice also included previous catalogs sponsored by Benetton to give an idea of what the company's brand of photojournalism was about. The catalogs, such as the "Enemies" series, a controversial take on Palestinian and Israeli relations, have the "United Colors of Benetton" logo on them.

Rice's letter explained that Benetton would produce a "photo essay" and print 6 million copies in 13 languages, most of them distributed in Europe and Asia, with only limited distribution in the U.S. "No profits are generated from the publication of this photo essay," he insisted. Early on the second page, Rice mentions 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."

The commercial undertone of his letters, along with the previous catalogs emblazoned with the United Colors of Benetton logos, must have disturbed some states, because many gave Rice's team the brush-off. "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 2 trips to Louisiana, and each time the warden said: 'I just don't like this Benetton crap. Just go away,'" Rice remembered.

At first Missouri, too, rejected Rice's request. "We were told no. Unequivocally no. We called Missouri back in late August, trying to reopen the door," Rice said. "We were told not only no, but hell no." [Missouri attorney general spokesman Scott Holste denied that the team made 2 tries.] But an abolitionist ally in Missouri eventually prevailed on prison officials and Rice's team -- Toscani, Shulman, Rice's assistant Julie Wasson and others -- gained access to the state's prisons

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