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The recent United Colors of Benetton ads are more than shock-marketing

MONTREAL (CUP) – Imagine Pope Benedict XVI locking lips with an imam. That image got real last week. It appeared, along with images of other world leaders locking lips, on billboards and bridges in Rome, Paris, Tel Aviv, New York, and Milan on Nov. 16. It was clothing company United Colors of Benetton’s newest ad campaign.

The Vatican, in typical Vatican fashion, got offended. The sensual depiction of its leader prompted threats of legal action against the company. In response, Benetton removed the image from the collection of controversial kisses that make up its newest campaign, entitled “Unhate.”

This latest move by the Catholic Church comes during the Pope’s visit to Africa, where he preached to leaders that they should stop depriving their people of hope for a better future. There’s an irony to the Pope making these optimistic statements while the Vatican uses its influence to censor conversations that could actually cultivate this hope.

As of late, our society seems to value large-scale conversation more than ever. Look at the tents and demonstrations that have popped up in hundreds of cities around the world.

Starting a conversation is what this ad was meant to do as well.

Benetton is no amateur when it comes to using shock tactics. Its past ads have included a man dying of AIDS with his grieving family next to his hospital bed, a black woman breastfeeding a white baby and three identical human hearts labelled black, white, and yellow.

All these contentious images have a purpose, however. They may be intended to raise consumer awareness of Benetton’s products, but they’re doing so by attempting to shock the population into having a conversation.

People are angry because they feel their religion is being mocked. But I think what is really being mocked here are the people themselves – people who can’t see past the homosexuality (a lot of people are up in arms about that), and who can’t look up from their religious texts and see what is really going on around them.

Religious intolerance is breeding hate and war, and guess what: our society is not working.

So let’s talk. Let’s look at these ads and ask ourselves why they shock us, why this meeting of ideas is so unfathomable that the Vatican feels it should be torn down and many in the religious community are upset. It is because in our limited view of the future, we cannot picture a time when this is possible. That is the message here. This campaign, ultimately, is about more than selling clothes. This campaign is about forcing us to talk about the power of these images. It’s a shame that a valuable participant in the discussion has opted to shut it out, rather than speak up.

Hillary Sinclair
The Link (Concordia University)

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