World News

Benetton ‘Migrants’ Ads Draw Outrage for Using Photos of Real Migrants

Posted June 21, 2018 7:27 p.m. EDT

LONDON — Benetton, the Italian fashion retailer known for its brightly colored knits and provocative campaigns, may not be the global powerhouse it once was. But the company was back in the news this week for an ad that strikes at the heart of an issue bedeviling European borders: migration.

The company repurposed two photographs from recent migrant rescue operations by staff members from the Franco-German charity SOS Méditerranée for an advertising campaign, drawing howls of protest that the ads were insensitive and exploitive.

One image depicted charity workers handing out life jackets to migrants on an overflowing raft off the coast of Libya. The other showed migrant women and their children at an aid station in Italy.

Both pictures were published on the retailer’s Twitter account and in print in the Italian daily La Repubblica with the United Colors of Benetton logo. The one with the raft was removed from Twitter after the criticism reached a pitch.

The charity, which conducted the ocean rescue operation on June 9, lashed out at Benetton on Tuesday and denied having anything to do with the advertising campaign.

“SOS Méditerranée fully dissociates itself from this campaign, which displays a picture taken while our teams were rescuing people in distress at sea,” the charity said in a statement. “The human tragedy at stake in the Mediterranean must never be used for any commercial purposes.”

Even Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini — the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, who has vowed to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants and called for a census on the Roma residents to target illegal immigration — appeared to criticize Benetton, writing on Twitter: “Am I the only one to find this despicable?”

A Benetton spokesman said Thursday that the company had no immediate comment.

Migration has become a flashpoint in Europe, generating heated debates about who should be responsible for the flow of migrants crossing the continent’s borders and arriving by sea.

Last week, Italy’s new populist government turned away a rescue ship, Aquarius, that was carrying more than 600 migrants, including 120 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, according to Doctors Without Borders, one of the ship’s operators.

Three ships carrying the migrants, including two Italian navy vessels, were accepted by Spain on Sunday, which Salvini hailed as a “victory” for his party.

Italy’s stance has exacerbated the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, prompting the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to convene an informal “minisummit meeting” about migration before next week’s European Council session.

Benetton, founded in 1965 as a family company, grew into an international juggernaut with thousands of outlets worldwide and a reputation for pushing the envelope while championing diversity in its images. One of its most famous advertisements is a picture of three hearts with “Black,” “White” and “Yellow” emblazoned across them. The company is now seen as a faded brand in the United States.

The photographer Oliviero Toscani has been behind many of its most striking ads since 1984, including the latest ones. He recently returned as the company’s art director, along with the brand’s founder, Luciano Benetton, in an effort to revive the label’s plummeting fortune.

Toscani was fired in 2000 for an advertisement with an anti-death-penalty theme featuring death-row inmates. The state of Missouri filed a lawsuit against the company, accusing it of misleading U.S. officials to gain access to the inmates. Victims rights groups also protested the campaign and threatened to boycott Benetton products.

Other provocative Benetton advertisements by Toscani include a nun kissing a priest, an AIDS patient on his deathbed and Pope Benedict XVI kissing an Egyptian imam. The Vatican threatened legal action to prevent distribution or publication of the image.

A Benetton campaign was withdrawn in the United States when some groups objected to an image of a black woman breast-feeding a white baby.

Toscani has defended his work, saying the campaigns are aimed at raising awareness on issues such a human rights, racism and religion.

In 1991, he told The New York Times: “There is a certain amount of puritanism that exists in the United States. There’s always somebody saying something about every picture.”

“In Italy,” he added of the controversy over the image of the priest and nun, “where there are still old journalists, old institutions, they are upset.”

Responding to Salvini’s criticism of his latest work, Toscani said on Twitter, “The fact that a denier like you criticizes this makes me realize I’m right.”