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Care Fakers

Advertisers also want you to think they're rebels, just like Henry Rollins and William S. Burroughs.

    According to their ads, what they really want to do is to help each and every one of us fulfill our potential as human beings. Of course, buying their products just might help us reach our goals.

    How are these corporate entities taking on the cloak of morality--and why now? Join me as we journey to a place where image is everything and critical thinking is prohibited.

    Benetton or Bust?

    After years of using shocking images to somehow sell fashionable sweaters, Benetton went way beyond pushing the envelope last year by using a photograph of a dead Bosnian soldier's blood-soaked uniform in an ad.

    Oliviero Toscani, creative director for the Italian clothing company, claimed that he was simply using the advertising to try to put an end to war. Sure, it's possible to end a 900-year-old conflict with a single photograph. And what was the response to this shot seen round the world? How about this pithy quote:

      "Benetton's ad strategy is morally condemnable, legally untenable and economically extremely damaging." This came from a spokesperson for ZAW, the German advertising agency trade association, because Toscani has finally done the unthinkable--his ad campaigns are now costing the company millions of dollars.

    Today, after years of stirring controversy in the guise of "socially aware" advertising, Benetton retailers are realizing--a bit too late--that kids buying expensive sweaters really don't care about Haitian refugees, nuns kissing priests or AIDS patients.

    "The message seems to be 'If you can't sell sex, sell shock,' " says Jill Heine, a graduate student instructor in the University of New Mexico's sociology department. "Benetton is basically commercializing human tragedy and desecrating what should be considered 'sacred images.' The ads play off the images of despair, a sense of hopelessness."

    Benetton assumed that we'd credit the company for being bold in its denunciation of war, racism and disease. (As if J Crew, by simply showing beautiful people enjoying their lives, was tacitly supporting war, racism and disease.)

    While the campaign continues its shock tactics, the united colors of Benetton seem to exist everywhere except within the company, with European franchisers and the parent company suing each other over the direction of the $80 million ad campaign.

    Benetton is suing for non-payment of merchandise and franchise fees; the franchisees say they aren't paying because the ad campaign is costing them millions of dollars in lost business. Sales have dropped between 30 percent and 50 percent, and the number of retailers has dropped from a high of 650 to around 450. (Of course, it could be that the clothes suck.)

    Besides losing sales and retailers, Benetton is having trouble in the courts. In France, Benetton was slapped with a $28,300 fine when an AIDS support association sued, charging that Benetton was exploiting the disease to sell a few more T-shirts. The court found that the campaign was "outside the domain of commercial activities." Benetton is appealing the decision.

    Here in the United States, retailers have tossed the campaign from Italy and hired an advertising agency in California to produce some spots to bring in the Ann Taylor and Banana Republic shopper. The ads feature real models, with nary a bloody uniform in sight. It seems that the 150 U.S. retailers understand that sometimes people just want to buy a sweater, as opposed to a company's ideology.

    But don't despair--we'll soon be treated to a new campaign from Benetton's sports division. How about these images to sell tennis rackets and in-line skates: Jesus being crucified, German Olympians during the Third Reich giving the Nazi salute, Cuban boat refugees and, of course, the ubiquitous condom. No Benetton campaign would be complete without one.

    Up in Smoke

    "Cigarette companies know more about teen smoking than anyone," says Bob Rogers, associate professor of marketing management at the Anderson School of Management. And with that knowledge, they create marketing campaigns which portray them as concerned citizens whose sole interest is in protecting our children.

    Philip Morris, the king of cigarette manufacturers, is touting a new campaign designed to keep kids from smoking. It seems that they never wanted minors to use their products and were shocked--shocked--to discover that free samples, mailings and vending machines allowed children easy access to their products.

    Even though smoking is a health hazard costing us billions of dollars every year in insurance and medical costs, Philip Morris has taken the position of being in fact a fine corporate and community citizen, just trying to provide a product people--adults, actually--want.

    So, with the single-minded focus of a Shining Path guerrilla, Philip Morris has created "Action Against Access," a hard-hitting program designed to prevent boys and girls from getting their grubby little hands on a pack of smokes.

    The catchy slogan, "the best way to keep kids away from cigarettes is to keep cigarettes away from kids," sounds like it was lifted from the National Rifle Association. The 10-pronged voluntary program provides such measures as posting minimum-age requirements in stores (which have been around since I was a kid) and making the clerk at the local Circle K more vigilant (maybe a free pack of smokes for every kid he turns away). Philip Morris seems to have forgotten that better than half of the cigarettes smoked by kids are shoplifted. I suppose an educational program aimed at kids telling them about the health risks involved with smoking would never work.

    Meanwhile, Philip Morris Co. is flooding China, home to a billion potential smokers, with free samples, mailings and vending machines. Certainly no children way over there are going to try these products.

    So what's the point behind the campaign? Rogers points out that "all companies seek a competitive advantage to sell their product." So if some legal smokers think keeping kids from getting hooked is a great idea and they buy some Philip Morris products because of it, so much the better.

    If the Shoe Fits ...

    As Phil Knight, Nike's CEO, recently said, "It's all right to be Goliath, but always act like David." Knight apparently forgot who killed whom on that Middle Eastern plain.

    Today, Nike is the undisputed footwear Goliath, with 38 percent of market share, compared to Reebok's anemic 27 percent. And the behemoth that is now Nike ($4.7 billion worldwide sales) is ready to use its slingshot.

    The latest spot from Nike's ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy, features young girls (Calvin Klein, take note) imploring the adults of the world to let them play sports because it will make their futures much brighter once they discover the pleasures of sliding home.

    Here, according to Wieden & Kennedy, are some of the wonderful benefits of sports:

      "I will have more self-confidence."

      "I'll be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer."

      "I'll suffer less depression."

      "I'll be more likely to leave a man who beats me."

      "I'll be less likely to get pregnant before I want to."

    Gosh, I had no idea lacrosse could do all that!

    As a general statement, you can certainly say that playing team sports can make kids better people. Out on the field kids can develop self-confidence, learn about teamwork and cope with defeat.

    But they can also take home some other messages: following rules, staying in the lines, cheating, mocking those with lesser talent and being traumatized by overbearing parents.

    Regarding the statistics cited in the ad, perhaps a little trip in the ol' time machine is in order, as recounted in Randall Rothenberg's book Where the Suckers Moon.

    A couple of years ago, Wieden & Kennedy landed the Subaru account. Until then, the firm was known exclusively for its work with Nike, but this was its chance to show the ad world that it could handle other accounts.

    One of the print ads had a claim that the new Subaru SVX had 63 safety features. When the copywriter was asked where he got that information, he said, "I made it up." Wieden & Kennedy lost the account after one year.

    And for all the talk of empowering youngsters here at home, imagine how empowering it would be if you were a young woman in Indonesia, making Nikes all day long in sweatshop conditions for about 82 cents per day.

    "It's just a huge contradiction," says Victoria Carty, a sociology graduate student instructor, "when you look at the advertising aimed at women here and the patriarchal message given to the Asian workers regarding subordination to authority and other issues."

    Talkin' to You

    It all comes down to this: These companies want to create consumer desire. As long as companies and their ad agencies believe, whether because of sales, focus groups, gut feelings or simply because their competitors are "just doing it," that selling a social angle will get them more customers, they're going to do it.

    A company has a single, overriding mission: to make money. If they can use some of their profits to help out some people, that's terrific. But know that the minute anything threatens the bottom line, out it goes.

    Something to keep in mind next time an image burns itself into your brain.

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From the Feb. 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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