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From Benetton to Murdoch: The Culture of Money, Shock and Schlock

The aestheticization of shock, difference and glamour misappropriates social consciousness.

Part of the Series

What C. Wright Mills once termed “the cultural apparatus” matters even more 50 years later.(1) At the dawn of the 21st century, this apparatus has grown into a vast web of media monopolies, which serve to entertain global audiences, set fashion standards, provide information about the world, promote celebrity culture, create consumer desires and occasionally offer insights about existing social problems while holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable. But they do more. They also function as teaching machines, producing and legitimating particular modes of identity while providing the framing mechanisms that drive the questions, interests and values that shape a society. Through the sheer power of their size and ubiquity, the media and its digital extensions influence major institutions, influence the larger culture and reproduce particular social values; they also set standards, exert influence upon politics and often privilege the trivial over the substantive, the consumer over the citizen and the narrowest of interests over larger ethical and social considerations. As the old and new media take over the space of the public and private, they have become a more insistent and aggressive anti-democratic force corrupting politics, demeaning public goods, trading in campaigns of fear, substituting opinions for legitimate argument and turning news outlets into spectacles of pain and perversion, if not worse. Think here of the preponderance of hate radio and television shows that feature the likes of Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and Bill O’Reilly. And bear in mind the narcissistic messages endlessly paraded on realty TV shows. Listen to the often cruel and homophobic nonsense vomited up from the mouths of right-wing luminaries such as Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin and how the mainstream media reports such invective as a serious species of argument. The scandalous example of Rupert Murdoch is a recent case in point where money and greed combined with a politics of corruption and shock to produce a culture of cruelty that tarnished everything it touched. Not only did News Corporation inundate the world with schlock tabloids, it also invaded the privacy and violated the dignity of the British royal family, various celebrities and the victims of the 2005 terrorist attack in London by hacking into their voice mail accounts. And by some accounts, is guilty of the same criminal offense in the United States.(2) But the most offensive hacking News Corporation has done is to hack into people’s minds, filling their everyday lives with gossip, spectacles, the relentless sexualization of women and incessant cheerleading for a market-driven society where all that matters is winning and making money. Unfortunately, what is often left out of existing narratives about the rise of big media and its commitment to shock and political conservatism is the role it plays as a form of public pedagogy, an educational force that demeans any viable notion of democratic values, relations and critical agency. One way of understanding this reactionary form of public pedagogy is to examine the crucial, if not foundational role that trendy and “conscious” corporations like Benetton have played over the last 40 years in trading in an aesthetic of glam exposé that makes an appeal to addressing viable social issues.

The merging of spectacle, shock and schlock in advertising has assumed increasing importance in societies where the media and other forms of screen culture become the most powerful repository for engaging and educating the wider public. In what follows, I want to turn to a brief history of Benetton and its practices as a way of understanding the current role that the media plays in promoting a culture of sensation, fear and cruelty that obliterates any remnant of social responsibility and a viable politics and pedagogy of representation. The Benetton model is important because it illustrates how the aestheticization of shock, difference and glamour can be used and manipulated not only to attract a wider audience for its clothing line, but also to misappropriate social consciousness as a way to bring attention to itself while subordinating important social issues to the brand-name power of the logo and the lure of the commodity.

Benetton and the Politics of Shock

Companies such as Benetton, the famous clothing manufacturer, have for decades used the proliferation of images and the celebration of diversity to create pedagogical practices that offer consumers a sense of unity and harmony within a world increasingly devoid of any substantive discourse of community and solidarity. It is in its concerted and often pernicious efforts to rearticulate the relationships among difference, human agency and community that mass advertising increasingly succeeds in its promotional mission: to disguise the political nature of everyday life and appropriate the vulnerable new terrain of insurgent differences in the interests of crass consumerism.

With the rapid expansion of digital media, mass advertising has become the creator of a representational politics that powerfully challenges our understanding of what constitutes pedagogy, the sites in which it takes place and who speaks under what conditions through its authorizing agency. When I first wrote about Benetton’s advertising campaigns ten years ago, I suggested that the emergence of advertising as a global enterprise had generated a new form of violence against the public. Images that shocked people in the past had become “the most effective way of selling commodities.”(3) By this I did not mean simply that violence intrudes into designated public spheres as much as I was suggesting the presence of a “public whose essential predicate would be violence.”(4) Defining itself as a subverter of stereotypes, Benetton combined taboos, shock and violence within a new aesthetic and mode of voyeurism that mediated between the pleasures derived from witnessing the sadistic and masochistic images. At the core of this violence were constituting principles that accentuated individualism and binary differences as central elements of the marketplace. Underlying this violence of the public was a notion of the social bereft of ethics, social justice and any viable notion of democratic public culture. Put differently, mass advertising and its underlying corporate interests represented a new stage in an effort to abstract the notion of the public from the language of ethics, history and democratic community. The rearticulation and intersection of advertising and commerce on the one hand, and politics and representational pedagogy on the other, could be seen in the emergence of Benetton as one of the leading manufacturers and retailers of contemporary clothing.

Today, much more so, I believe we are witnessing an unprecedented shift in American popular culture toward an utterly depraved form of aesthetics. Images that shocked one generation of viewers and then produced alienation and indifference in the next, have become even more sensationalized, as people eagerly and brazenly consume displays of aggression, brutality and death. In what follows, I suggest that this culture of cruelty is part and parcel of the growing influence of neoliberal policies across all sectors. A new and disturbing public enjoyment in the humiliation of others – far from representing an individualized pathology – now infects US society as a whole in such a way that bespeaks the imminent death of the social state.

Since the early 1990s, Benetton has proven that trafficking in pain and human suffering is not only good for business, but also good for providing a patina of legitimacy to the company as an artsy brand with philanthropic concerns.(5) Benetton’s United Colors campaign appropriated shocking and visually arresting representations of violence and pain in order to sell clothes and attract global attention to its brand. In doing so, Benetton did more than conjoin the worlds of beauty and suffering; it also pushed a mode of commercial advertising in which the subjects of often horrendous misfortunes and acts of suffering disappeared into the all-embracing world of logos and brand names. For example, in 2000, it launched a campaign with images of convicts on death row. Claiming the ad was supporting an anti-death penalty theme, Benetton launched the campaign in Talk magazine with a 96-page supplement called “We, On death row,” in which it offered close-up photos of 26 condemned men from various states accompanied by sympathetic profiles. Focusing mostly on regrets and what they missed in the outside world, the ad campaigned offered no details of their crimes. For example, “Viewers never learn that one of the featured prisoners, Conan Wayne Hale, killed three teen-agers in Oregon or that in a racially motivated crime Jeremy Sheets kidnapped, raped and murdered a black teen-ager in Nebraska. And the ads do not explain that Jerome Mallett killed a state highway officer in Missouri. But they do hear Mallett bemoan the fact that he’s going to die. In the Benetton spots, Jones talks about the food he misses most, including his mother’s homemade biscuits.”(6) Many of the relatives of the victims were outraged. The campaign stirred both outrage and an ensuing boycott of Benetton in the United States. Benetton eventually dropped the campaign and the famed Benetton photographer, Oliviero Toscani, eventually resigned. The death-row campaign took a deep interest in situating death, decadence and violence as commodities and cultural icons, all in the interest of selling clothes.

Benetton takes a bold stance in attempting to use advertising as a forum to address highly charged social and political issues. Through its public statements and advertising campaigns, Benetton occasionally brings a dangerous, new dimension to corporate appropriation as a staple of its shock aesthetics. Inviting the penetration of aesthetics into everyday life, Benetton has utilized less deterministic and more flexible approaches to design, technology and styling. Such approaches to marketing and layout privilege contingency, plurality and the poetics of the photographic image in an attempt to rewrite the relationship among aesthetics, commerce and politics. Instead of depoliticizing or erasing images that vividly, and in some cases, shockingly depict social and political events, Benetton attempted to redefine the link between commerce and politics by emphasizing both the politics of representation and the representation of politics. In the first instance, Benetton appropriated for one of its advertising campaigns actual news photos of social events that portray various calamities of the time. These include pictures of a bloodied Mafia murder victim, depictions of child labor, a terrorist car bombing and the bloodstained clothes worn by a Croatian student the day he was killed. In the second instance, as part of a representation of politics, Benetton positions itself less as a producer of commodities and market retailer than as a corporate voice for a particular definition of public morality, consensus, coherence and community.

As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, ethical considerations and social costs are eclipsed by market-driven policies and values. Images of human suffering are increasingly abstracted from social and political contexts and the conditions that make such suffering possible – and thus visually alluring. Moreover, as public issues collapse into privatized considerations, matters of agency, responsibility and ethics are now framed within the discourse of extreme individualism. According to this neoliberal logic, individuals and the problems they confront are removed from any larger consideration of public values, social responsibility and compassion. The collapse of the social and the formative culture that makes human bonds possible is now outmatched by the rise of a Darwinian ethic of greed and self-interest in which violence, aggressiveness and sadism have become the primary metric for living and dying.

Death and violence have become the mediating link between America’s domestic policy – the state’s treatment of its own citizens – and US foreign policy, between the tedium of ever expanding workdays and the thrill of sadistic release. Disposable bodies now waste away in American prisons, underfunded schools and overflowing shelters just as they litter the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. America has become a permanent warfare state, with a deep investment in a cultural politics and the corollary cultural apparatuses to legitimate and sanctify its machinery of death. In a culture that increasingly disavows any sense of the origin, context and legacy of violence, it is all the more important to question how we arrived at this historical conjuncture. Benetton should be considered a pioneer in the development of the new aesthetics of depravity and its subsequent debasement. We should understand its role not only because of its marketing success, but also because of the complex position it negotiated at a transitional stage in US culture.

Benetton: Small Beginnings and Global Controversies

All over the world, Benetton stands for colorful sportswear, multiculturalism, world peace, racial harmony and, now, a progressive approach toward serious social issues.(7)

In 1965, Luciano Benetton and three siblings established a small business, Fratelli Benetton, near Treviso, Italy. Originally designed to produce colorful sweaters, the business expanded into a full range of clothing apparel and eventually developed into a $2 billion dollar fashion empire producing 80 million pieces of clothing a year for 7,000 franchise stores in over 100 countries. Benetton’s advertising campaign over the last two decades has been instrumental in its success in the fashion world. The advertising campaign is important not merely as a means for assessing Benetton’s commercial success in extending its name recognition. It is also crucial for understanding how the philosophy of the company has attempted to reinscribe its image within a broader set of political and cultural concerns. In 1984, Benetton hired Oliviero Toscani, an award-winning photographer, to head its advertising campaign. Given a free hand with the advertising budget, Toscani’s early work focused on culturally diverse young people dressed in Benetton attire and engaged in a variety of seemingly aimless and playful acts. Linking the colors of Benetton clothes to the diverse colors of their customers from all over the world, Toscani attempted to use the themes of racial harmony and world peace to register such differences within a wider unifying articulation. In 1990, Toscani adopted the United Colors of Benetton as a recurring trademark of the Benetton ideology. In 1991, Toscani initiated a publicity campaign that removed Benetton merchandise from the firm’s advertising and started using its $80 million global ad budget to publish controversial and disturbing photographs in magazines and on billboards. Taking full control of the ad blitz, Toscani personally photographed many of the images that dominated the 1991 Benetton campaign. These included a number of compelling images that created a provocative effect: variously colored, blown-up condoms floating in the air; a nun kissing a priest on the lips; a row of test tubes filled with blood; and a newborn baby girl covered in blood and still attached to her umbilical cord. In 1992, Toscani embarked on his most dramatic effort to combine high fashion and politics in the service of promoting the Benetton name. He selected a series of highly charged, photo-journalistic images referencing, among other things, the AIDS crisis, environmental disaster, political violence, war, exile and natural catastrophe. These appeared in various journals and magazines as well as on billboards without written text except for the conspicuous insertion of the green and white United Colors of Benetton logo located in the margins of the photograph.

Benetton’s shift in advertising strategy between 1983 and 1991 and the later shift in the new millennium need to be considered as part of a wider politics and pedagogy of representation. The earlier photographs representing children of diverse races and colors dressed in Benetton clothing have a “netherworld quality that gives the viewers the impression they’re glimpsing some fashionable heaven.”(8) Depicted in these photographs of children hugging and holding hands is a portrayal of racial harmony and difference that appears both banal and sterile. The exaggerated precision of the models and primary colors used in the advertisements render racial unity as a purely aesthetic category, while eliminating racial conflict completely in this two-dimensional world of make believe. In addition, these colorful images appear almost too comfortable and seem at odds with a world marked by political, economic and cultural conflict. In the early ads, difference is for the most part subordinated to the logic of the marketplace and commerce. At the same time, the harmony and consensus implied in these ads often mock concrete racial, social and cultural differences as they are constituted amid hierarchical relations of struggle, power and authority. Benetton’s corporate image in this case seems strangely at odds with its own market research, which indicated that its “target customers – 18-34 year old women – are more socially active and aware than any generation that precedes them.”(9)

The switch in the ad campaign to controversial photo-journalistic images reflects an attempt on the part of Benetton to redefine its corporate image. In order to define itself as a company concerned with social change, Benetton suspended its use of upscale representations in its mass advertising campaign, especially in a world where “denial in the service of upbeat consumerism is no longer a workable strategy as we are continually overwhelmed by disturbing and even cataclysmic events.”(10) In an uncertain world of massive inequality and human suffering caught in the disruptive forces of nationalism, famine, violence and war, such early representations linked Benetton’s image less to the imperatives of racial harmony than to the forces of cultural uniformity and yuppie colonization. Moreover, Benetton’s move away from an appeal to utility to one of social responsibility provides an object lesson in how promotional culture increasingly uses pedagogical practices to shift its emphasis from selling a product to selling an image of corporate responsibility. Benetton’s increase in sales, profits and the widespread publicity suggested that the campaign worked wonders.

The response to the campaign inaugurated in 1991 was immediate. Benetton was both condemned for its appropriation of serious issues to sell goods and praised for incorporating urgent social concerns into its advertising. In many cases, a number of the Benetton ads were either banned from particular countries or refused by specific magazines. One of the most controversial ads portrayed AIDS patient, David Kirby, surrounded by his family shortly before he died. Benetton used the colorized image of Kirby to sell jumpers. The Kirby ad became the subject of heated debate among various groups in a number of countries. In 1995, Benetton once again traded on the photographic juxtaposition of human suffering, the spectacle of human blood and name-brand promotion by putting the Benetton logo next to a picture of the bloodstained clothes of a Croatian college student named Marinko Gargo, who was shot and killed by enemy fire in Bosnia-Herzegovina in July 1995. Claiming that the purpose of the ad was to enlighten the world about the Bosnian War, Benetton ignored critics who asserted that the company was once again capitalizing on and sensationalizing human tragedy for profit. In spite of the criticism and perhaps in part due to it, the company’s sales doubled, reaching more than $1.8 billion in the United States alone. The Benetton name even infiltrated popular literary culture, with Douglas Coupland coining the phrase “Benetton Youth” in his novel “Shampoo Planet” (1992) to refer to global kids whose histories, memories and experiences began in the Reagan era of greed and conspicuous consumption. Adweek reported that because of the success of the Benetton campaign, Toscani had become something of a commercial “star,” and had been asked by American Express to develop marketing concepts for them. David Roberts, an analyst with Nomura International/London, claimed during this era that Benetton’s “name recognition is approaching that of Coca-Cola.”(11)

Benetton’s practical response to the controversy was threefold. First, Benetton and its spokespersons reacted aggressively within a number of public forums and debates in order to defend its advertising policies by either condemning the criticism as a form of censorship or criticizing other ad companies for producing advertising that merely engaged in the most reductionistic forms of pragmatism. Second, it used the debate to reorder its identity as a corporate force for social responsibility. Third, it seized upon the controversy itself as a pretext for further marketing of its ideology in the form of books, magazines, talks, interviews, articles and the use of celebrities such as Spike Lee to endorse its position in the debate. Benetton proceeded to articulate and defend its position in the popular press in material published in its own books and newspapers and even in campaign copy sent to its various retail stores. It also attempted to defray criticism of its ads by allowing selected executives to speak in interviews, the press and various popular magazines. The three major spokespersons for Benetton were Luciano Benetton, founder and managing director; Oliviero Toscani, creative director; and Peter Fressola, Benetton’s director of communications in North America. All three provided different versions of a similar theme: Benetton is not about selling sweaters, but social responsibility, and it is a company that represents less a product line than a lifestyle and worldview.

While serving as a senator to the Italian Parliament in the early 1990s, Luciano Benetton emerged as the principal ideologue in the Benetton apparatus. He was chiefly responsible for defining the structuring principles that guided Benetton as both a corporate identity and an ideological force. His own political beliefs appeared deeply rooted in the neoliberal language of the free market, privatization, the removal of government from the marketplace and the advocacy of business principles as the basis for a new social imaginary. Hence, it is not surprising that, in addition to defending the ads for evoking public awareness of controversial issues, Luciano Benetton readily admitted that the advertising campaign “has a traditional function … to make Benetton known around the world and to introduce the product to consumers.”(12) More than any other spokesperson, Luciano Benetton articulated the company’s position concerning the relationship between commerce and art and served as a reminder that the bottom line for the company was profit and not social justice.

Fressola, on the other hand, focused on Benetton’s ideological position, claiming that the ad campaigns did not reflect the company’s desire to sell sweaters. He argued, “We’re not that stupid. We’re doing corporate communication. We’re sponsoring these images in order to change people’s minds and create compassion around social issues. We think of it as art with a social message.”(13) Of course, the question at stake here was whose minds Benetton expected to shape. In part, the answer lay in its own advertising material, which made it quite clear that “[V]arious studies have shown that … consumers are as concerned by what a company stands for as they are about the price/value relationship of that company’s product.”(14) There was nothing in Fressola’s message that challenged the legacy of the corporate use of communications to advance, if only tacitly, “some kind of self-advantaging exchange.”(15)

The moral high ground that Benetton wished to occupy appeared to be nothing less than an extension of market research. When questioned about the use of the Benetton logo imprinted on all of the photographs, Fressola, Toscani, and other spokespeople generally responded by evading the question and pointing to the use of such photographs as part of their support for art, controversy and public dialogue around social issues. But the presence of the logo was no small matter. In light of their market research, which stressed what Raymond Loewy calls the need for designer corporate symbols to index visual memory retention, the presence of the Benetton logo indicated a powerful advertising motive. It asserted that, regardless of the form taken by the brand logo, the purpose of advertising was to subordinate all values to the imperatives of profit and commercialization. Loewy’s argument explains this mentality: “We want anyone who has seen the logotype, even fleetingly, to never forget it, or at least to forget it slowly.”(16) The company’s response to criticism provided a powerful indictment of both Benetton’s socially responsible rationale and the claim that Benetton was engaging in a new form of corporate communication. By refusing to disrupt or challenge designer logos, communication in these terms did nothing more than link the commodification of human tragedy with the imperatives of brand recognition, while simultaneously asserting the discourse of aesthetic freedom and the moral responsibility of commerce. This was captured in part by a statement that appeared in Benetton’s fall/winter 1992 advertising campaign literature:

Among the various means available to achieve the brand recognition that every company must have, we at Benetton believe our strategy for communication to be more effective for the company and more useful to society than would be yet another series of ads showing pretty girls wearing pretty clothes.(17)

Toscani went further by separating his economic role as the director of advertising from what he called the process of communication, claiming rather blithely, “I am responsible for the company’s communications; I am not really responsible for its economics.”(18) Toscani appealed in this case to the moral high ground, suggesting that he was left untarnished by the commercial context that informed the deep structure of his job. Should we assume that Benetton’s market research in identifying target audiences had nothing whatsoever to do with Toscani’s creative endeavors? Or, perhaps, that Toscani found a way to avoid linking his own corporate success to the rise of Benetton’s name recognition in a global marketplace? Toscani was well aware of the relationship between representation and power, not to mention his own role in giving a new twist to the advertising of commodities as cultural signs in order to promote a particular system of exchange. In its advertising campaigns of 1990s and forward, Benetton developed a strategy of containment through advertising practices using journalistic photos that addressed consumers through stylized representations whose structuring principles were shock, sensationalism and voyeurism. In these images, Benetton’s motives were – and continue to be – more concerned with selling particular products than with offering its publicity mechanisms to diverse cultures as a unifying discourse for solving the great number of social problems.

Representations of Hopelessness

“Many people have asked why we didn’t include a text that would explain the image. But we preferred not to because we think the image is understandable by itself,” Luciano Benetton said.(19)

“I think to die is to die. This is a human situation, a human condition … . But we know this death happened. This is the real thing and the more real the thing is, the less people want to see it. It’s always intrigued me why fake has been accepted and reality has been rejected. At Benetton, we are trying to create an awareness of issues. AIDS is one of today’s major modern problem … so I think we have to show something about it,” Toscani said. (20)

In defense of the commercial use of sensational journalistic photographs, which included the aforementioned dying AIDS patient, a terrorist car bombing, a black soldier with a gun strapped over his shoulder holding part of the skeletal remains of another human being and representations of convicted killers on death row, Benetton’s spokespeople combined an assertion of universal values and experiences with the politics of realism. Arguing that such images served as a vehicle for social change by calling attention to the real world, Benetton suggested that its advertising campaign was informed by a representational politics in which the truth of such images is guaranteed by their alleged objective purchase on reality. From this perspective, shocking photos registered rather than engaged an alleged unmediated notion of the truth. This appeal to the unmediated truth effects of photographic imagery was coupled with a claim to universal truths (“to die is to die”) that served to deny the historical, social and political specificity of particular events. Ideologically, this suggested that the value of Benetton’s photos resided in their self-referentiality, that is, in their ability to reflect both the unique vision of the sponsor and their validation of a certain construction of reality. Suppressed in this discourse was an acknowledgement that the meaning of such photos resided in their functions within particular contexts.

Before discussing specific examples from Benetton’s more recent advertising campaigns, I want to comment briefly on some of the structuring devices at work in the use of the photo-journalistic images. All of Benetton’s ads depend upon a double movement between decontextualization and recontextualization. To accomplish the former move, the photos militate against a reading in which the context and content of the photo is historically and culturally situated. Overdetermined by the immediacy of the logic of the spectacle, Benetton’s photos become suspended in what Stuart Ewen has called “memories of style.”(21) That is, by dehistoricizing and decontextualizing the photos, Benetton attempts to render ideology innocent by blurring the conditions of production, circulation and commodification that present such photos as unproblematically real and true. By denying specificity, Benetton suppresses the history of these images and, in doing so, limits the range of meanings that might be brought into play. At stake here is a denial of how shifting contexts give images different meanings. Of course, the depoliticization that is at work here is not innocent. By failing to rupture the dominant ideological codes (i.e. racism, colonialism, sexism) that structure which I call Benetton’s use of hyperventilating (a realism of sensationalism, shock and spectacle), the ads simply register rather than challenge the dominant social relations reproduced in the photographs.

This process and its effects become clear in analyzing one of Benetton’s early controversial ads in which AIDS patient David Kirby is portrayed on his deathbed surrounded by members of his grieving family. On the one hand, this image suppresses the diverse lifestyles, struggles and realities of individuals in various stages of living with AIDS. In doing so, the Kirby image reinforces dominant representations of people with AIDS, reproducing what Douglas Crimp, in another context, refers to as “what we have already been told or shown about people with AIDS: that they are ravaged, disfigured and debilitated by the syndrome (and that) they are generally … desperate, but resigned to their inevitable deaths.”(22) The appeal to an aesthetic of realism does little to disturb the social and ideological force of such inherited dominant representations. On the contrary, by not providing an analysis of representations of AIDS as a de facto death sentence, relying instead on the clichés enforced through dominant images and their social effects, the Benetton ad reproduces rather than challenges conventional representations that portray people with AIDS as helpless victims.

Benetton’s use of photo-journalistic images that are decontextualized from any meaningful historical and social context are then recontextualized through the addition of the United Colors of Benetton logo. In the first instance, the logo produces a representational zone of comfort, confirming a playfulness that allows the viewer to displace any ethical or political understanding of the images contained in the Benetton ads. The logo serves to position the audience within a muddled combination of realism and amusement. Public truths revealed in Benetton’s images, regardless of how horrifying or threatening, are offered “as a kind of joke in which the reader is invited to participate (the ‘joke’ is how low can we go?), but its potential dangers are also pretty clear: today aliens from Mars kidnap joggers, yesterday Auschwitz didn’t happen, tomorrow who cares what happens.”(23) Of course, the joke here is that anything is for sale and social commitment is just another gimmick for selling goods. In this type of representational politics, critical engagement is rendered ineffective by turning the photo and its political referent into an advertisement. If the possibility of social criticism is suggested by the ad, then this is quickly dispelled by the insertion of the logo, which suggests that any complicity between the viewer and the event it depicts is merely ironic. The image ultimately refers to nothing more than a safe space where the logic of the commodity and the marketplace mobilize consumers’ desires rather than the struggle over social injustices and conflicts. For instance, in the case of the image of the bloodstained clothes of the Croatian student, the use of the Benetton logo juxtaposes human suffering and promotional culture so as to invite the viewer to position him or herself between the playfulness of commodification and an apocalyptic image rendering social change either ironic or unimaginable. This serves less to situate a critical viewer who can mediate social reality and its attendant problems than to subordinate this viewer to the demands and aesthetic of commerce. Blood circulates in this image as part of an economy of spectacle and fear. Capitalizing upon an aesthetic of irony coupled with a logic of fear, Benetton’s representations of blood and human suffering depoliticize and dehistoricize those very images they mark as part of the economy of the social and political.

Recontextualization also appeals to an empty relativism that suggests that such images can be negotiated by different individuals in multiple and varied ways. Benetton claims that such photos generate diverse interpretations. Such an assumption rightly suggests that viewers always mediate and rewrite images in ways that differ from particular ideologies and histories; but when such an assumption remains unqualified, it overlooks how specific contexts, relations of power and alignments with machines of culture privilege some readings over others. In other words, while individuals produce rather than merely receive meanings, the choices they make and the meanings they produce are not free floating. Such meanings and mediations are, in part, formed within wider social and cultural determinations that propose a range of reading practices that are privileged within dominant and subordinate relations of power. The reading of any text cannot be understood independently of the historical and social experiences that constitute how audiences interpret and identify with other images, modes of representation and knowledge.

In Benetton ad campaigns, the viewer is afforded no sense of how the aesthetic appeal to realism works to mask “the codes and structures which give photographs meaning as well as the historical contingencies (e.g., patriarchal structures which normalize notions of looking) which give such codes salience.”(24) There is no sense of how the operations of power inform the construction of social problems depicted in the Benetton ads, nor is there any recognition of the diverse struggles of resistance which attempt to challenge such problems. Within this aestheticization of politics, spectacle foregrounds our fascination with the hyper-real and positions the viewer within a visual moment that simply registers horror and shock without critically responding to it. Roland Barthes has referred to this form of representation as one that positions the viewer within the “immediacy of translation.”(25) According to Barthes, this is a form of representational politics that functions as myth, because it abolishes the complexity of human acts; it gives them the simplicity of essences; it does away with all complexity, without going beyond what is immediately visible; it organizes a world without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident; and it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves without the necessity of mediation or critical analysis.(26) Furthermore, as Stuart Ewen eloquently explains, the consumer utopia of images and meaning making bereft of history and context ultimately lead to despair over the possibility of social change. He writes: “By reducing all social issues to matters of perception, it is on the perceptual level that social issues are addressed. Instead of social change, there is image change. Brief shows of flexibility at the surface mask intransigence at the core.”(27)

Isolated from historical and social contexts, Benetton’s images are stripped of their political possibilities and reduced to a spectacle of fascination, horror and terror that appears to primarily privatize one’s response to social events. That is, the form of address both reproduces dominant renderings of the image and translates the possibility of agency into the privatized act of buying goods, rather than engaging forms of self-awareness and social determination. This appears evident in the fact that, while the images have changed, Benetton’s approach to advertising over the past 20 year has basically remained the same, further indicating its position outside the realm of social struggle and political change.

Benetton: Twenty Years Later

Benetton claims on its web site, “Benetton Group’s advertising campaigns are not only a means of communication but an expression of our time.”(28) The suggestion here is that Benetton simply reveals rather than produces and legitimates specific relationships between consumerism and the shock of the real. While Benetton has become more tame in recent years as its advertising campaign has parted ways with the shock ads it produced from the 1980s to the turn of the 21st century, it still maintains its core principles of highlighting a kind of cosmopolitan difference and a disingenuous concern with social issues as a vehicle to sell clothes. For example, in 2008, it launched a “global ad campaign called ‘Africa works,’ showing Africans working for themselves to beat poverty and promote equitable development.”(29) Nothing is said, of course, about how capitalism and the very consumerism that Benetton promotes bear some responsibility for the global inequality that created the conditions associated with the individuals in these images. Corporate greed and the massive inequalities in wealth and power produced by neoliberal capitalism are absent from these sanitized narratives. Nothing is said about Western colonialism and the relationship the latter has to the images of hardships and struggles of Africans portrayed in the Benetton ads who have long suffered at the hands of corporations forever on the search for cheap labor and valuable resources. When social problems are not stylistically exploited, difference is colonized and stripped of any political importance in Benetton’s ads. For instance, in its summer 2011 ad campaign, it juxtaposes young people of different races and ethnicities, always offsetting each other through the boldness of their contrasting skin colors and made all the more appealing through slightly edgy sterile images of either unity or images of transgression. In one ad, two young women are in their underwear kissing each other. The pleasure quotient of shock has not been dumped, just tamed a bit in the new face of Benetton. Difference as a powerful signifier of racism, hatred of immigrants, state terrorism and debilitating modes of discrimination is bleached clean from these representations. History, contexts, politics, power and ethics disappear into the consuming boutique of a depoliticized notion of aesthetic difference and political swamp.

The new pedagogy of mass advertising poses a central challenge to the role cultural workers might play in deepening their politics through a broader understanding of how knowledge is produced, identities shaped and values articulated as part of a pedagogical practice that circulates within an economy of culture and power that exceeds traditional notions of how certain forms of agency are put into place. The struggle over meaning is no longer one that can be confined to programs in educational institutions and their curricula. Moreover, the struggle over identity can no longer be seriously considered outside the politics of representation and the new formations of consumption. Culture is increasingly constituted by commerce and the penetration of commodity culture into every facet of daily life has become the major axis of relations of exchange through which corporations actively produce new, increasingly effective forms of address.

This is not to suggest that the politics of consumption in its various circuits of power constitutes an unadulterated form of domination. Such a view is often more defensive than dialectical and less interested in understanding the complex processes by which people desire, choose and act in everyday life than in shielding the guardians of high modernism, who have always despised popular culture for its vulgarity and association with the masses.(30) What is at stake in the intersection of commerce, advertising and consumption is the very definition and survival of critical public cultures or those formative spaces and cultures where people learn the knowledge and skills of engaged citizenship and social responsibility. I am referring here to those public spaces predicated on the multiplication of spheres of daily life where people can debate the meaning and consequences of public truths, inject a notion of moral responsibility into representational practices and collectively struggle to change dominant relations of power. Central to my argument has been the assumption that these corporate-controlled media institutions and the forms of advertising and consumption they promote do not deny politics; they simply reappropriate it. This is a politics that “actively creates one version of the social,” one that exists in harmony with market ideologies and initiatives.(31) Such a politics offers no resistance to a version of the social as largely a democracy of images, a public media extravaganza in which politics is defined through the consuming of images.(32)

Everyone concerned about the fate of democracy on a national and global level needs to reformulate the concept of resistance usually associated with these forms of public pedagogy and colonization. Such a formulation has to begin with an analysis of how cultural pedagogy works by problematizing the intersection of power and representation in an ever-expanding realm of images and culture. Representations reach deeply into daily life, contributing to the increased fragmentation and decentering of individual and collective subjects. Not only are the categories of race, gender, sexuality, age and class increasingly rewritten in highly differentiating and often divisive terms, but the space of the social is further destabilized through niche marketing that constructs identities around lifestyles, ethnicity, fashion, and a host of other commodified elements. Take, for example, The Walt Disney Company’s recent campaign, Disney Baby, in which Disney representatives visit maternity wards, give prospective parents “a free Disney Cuddly Bodysuite and ask mothers to sign up for e-mail alerts from”(33) Disney estimates that this baby market may be worth $36.3 billion annually and is working on a loyalty program, for instance, in which pregnant women might receive free theme park tickets in return for signing up for email alerts.(34) News Corporation may be guilty of transforming news into propaganda, buying off some members of the British police and corrupting politics, but Disney surely has to give up its claim to innocence when it is equally guilty of corrupting the minds of generations of children, beginning the process as soon as they are born.

Central is the issue here of how power has become an important cultural and ideological form – that is, how power deploys culture and culture deploys power – particularly within the realm of popular culture. Educators, parents, young people and others need a new map for registering and understanding how power works within various cultural apparatuses to promote modes of education that inscribe desires and identities as well as create multiple points of antagonism and struggle. Also in serious need of consideration is the creation of a new kind of pedagogical politics and pedagogy, organized through guiding narratives that link global and local social contexts, provide new articulations for engaging popular culture within rather than outside new technologies and regimes of representation and offer a moral language for expanding the struggle over democracy and citizenship to ever-widening spheres of daily life.

Clearly, more is at issue here than understanding how representations work to construct their own systems of meaning, social organizations and cultural identifications. All of us concerned about the fate of democracy need to take up the challenge of encouraging educators, students, and others to acknowledge our and their complicity in the discourse and pedagogy of market-driven knowledge, images, institutions and social relations while at the same time bringing the needs and desires if not scandal of hope mobilized by such practices to a principled and persistent crisis. This is not meant to invoke a vulgar critique of the real pleasures of buying, nor to underestimate the diverse ways in which people negotiate the terrain of the market and reappropriate goods through oppositional practices. Nor is it meant to suggest that people are just dupes of market-driven pedagogies. Rather, these conditions require recognition of the political and pedagogical limits of casino capitalism, the power of corporate controlled mega-media institutions to saturate a society with their beliefs, the role of powerful financial interests and the ultra-wealthy in creating institutions responsible for their active involvement in creating new identities, values and social relations stripped of any ethical or civic considerations. How else to explain why hedge fund managers, billionaires such as Bill Gates and rich conservative foundations are aggressively trying to privatize schools and turn higher education into an adjunct of the corporation. These are all the last outposts of a society in which the spaces for real democratic public spheres and a formative democratic culture reside. Individual and collective agency is about more than buying goods. and social life in its most principled forms point beyond the logic of the market as a guiding principle. It is up to cultural workers and other progressive educators to address this challenge directly as part of global pedagogical movement. Remembering Benetton is not simply an act of nostalgia for a particular advertising campaign. It is, more importantly, a lesson in the role education can play when a corrupted part of the cultural apparatus such as the News Corporation trades in propaganda, violence, commercialization and commodification while repudiating the essential role it might play in providing the information, values, news, narratives and formative cultures that are essential to a substantive democracy.


1. See, for instance, C. Wright Mills, “The Politics of Truth,” selected by John H. Summers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), especially the chapter “The Cultural Apparatus.”

2. See Russ Baker, “Murdoch US Scandal Brewing,” (July 21, 2011). Online here.

3. David Bailey and Stuart Hall, “The Vertigo of Displacement,” Ten.8 2:3 (1992), p. 15.

4. Andrew Payne and Tom Taylor, “Introduction: The Violence of the Public,” Public 6 (1992), p. 10.

5. Some of the issues in this section are drawn from my Henry A. Giroux, “Consuming Social Change: The United Colors of Benetton,” a chapter in my “Disturbing Pleasures: Learning Popular Culture” (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 3-24.

6. Editorial, “Catalog of Killers,” CBS News (February 11, 2009). Online here.

7. Quoted in Benetton’s Spring/Summer 1992 Advertising Campaign Copy, p. 5. See also, Mark Reinhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne, eds., “Beautiful Suffering,” (U of Chicago Press, 2007).

8. Michael Stevens, “Change the World, Buy a Sweater,” Chicago Tribune (December 11, 1992), p. 33.

9. Benetton spring/summer 1992 Advertising campaign copy, p. 4.

10. Carol Squires, “Violence at Benetton,” Artforum 30 (May 1992), pp. 18-19.

11. Quoted in Noreen O’Leary, “Benetton’s True Colors,” Adweek (August 24, 1992), p. 28.

12. Ingrid Sischy, “Advertising Taboos: Talking to Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani,” Interview (April 1992), p. 69.

13. Quoted in Squires, “Violence,” p. 18.

14. Benetton spring/summer 1992 Advertising campaign copy, p. 2.

15. Andrew Warnick, “Promotional Culture” (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991), p. 181.

16. Quoted in Stuart Ewen, “All Consuming Images” (New York: Basic Books, 1988), p. 247.

17. Benetton fall/winter 1992 advertising campaign literature, p. 2.

18. Oliviero Toscani, quoted in Ingrid Sischy, “Advertising Taboos,” p. 69.

19. Luciano Benetton, Ingrid Sischy, “Advertising Taboos,” p. 69.

20. Oliviero Toscani, Ingrid Sischy, “Advertising Taboos,” p. 69.

21. Ewen, “All Consuming,” p. 248.

22. Douglas Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” in “Cultural Studies,” ed. Lawrence Grossberg et al. (New
York: Routledge, 1992), p. 118.

23. Dick Hebdige, “After the Masses,” in “New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s,” ed. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (London: Verso, 1989), p. 83.

24. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Photography at the Dock” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 145.

25. Roland Barthes, “Shock-Photos,” in “The Eiffel Tower” (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), p. 72.

26. Roland Barthes, “Mythologies” (New York: Noonday, 1972), p. 143.

27. Ewen, “All Consuming,” p. 264.

28. See here.

29. For an example of some of these images, see here.

30. On the dialectics of consumerism, see Mike Featherstone, “Consumer Culture and Postmodernism,” (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1991); and Mica Nava, “Changing Cultures: Feminism, Youth and Consumerism,” (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992).

31. Dick Hebdige, “After the Masses,” p. 89.

32. I have taken this idea from the transcript of the television show, “The Public Mind” with Bill Moyers (New York: WNET Public Affairs Television, 1989), p. 14.

33. Brooks Barnes, “Disney Looking Into Cradle for Customers,” New York Times (February 6, 2011). Online here.

34. Brooks Barnes, “Disney Looking Into Cradle for Customers,” New York Times (February 6, 2011). Online here.

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