A message that can wear thin

Benetton’s attention-grabbing style has taught us all a fundamental lesson – advertising must have high impact, without alienating the target market.

SBHD: Benetton’s attention-grabbing style has taught us all a fundamental lesson – advertising must have high impact, without alienating the target market.

The dispute between the Italian Benetton corporation and some of its network of retailers throughout Europe further fuels the controversy about

the company’s advertising policy. This time opposition has been prompted not by concern over the morality of using images of pain and suffering to promote a brand, but by the detrimental effect such a strategy is alleged to have had upon sales in some regions.

It is, of course, impossible to say with any authority whether Benetton’s advertising has boosted or damaged sales. It seems most probable that it has done neither and, as Benetton itself has pointed out, was never intend-ed to. Some retailers support the company’s advertising policy and others oppose it, but no one can dispute that it has succeeded in making Benetton a household name thr-oughout Europe.

It could be argued that this is a major achievement in itself for a company operating in a highly competitive market sector where there is little to distinguish one brand from the next.

While we can’t anticipate how Benetton intends to develop its marketing communications strategy, the company’s situation does highlight questions facing many multinational advertisers building brands globally.

At the very heart of this process lies the most difficult challenge of all – the creation of advertising that not only achieves high impact or noticeability, but is also relevant to the brand’s target market.

This does not imply any objection to the use of controversial advertising messages per se. In a crowded market sector, where it is hard to distinguish between rival brands, it can often be a vital way to attract attention. But one cannot help wondering whether the Benetton approach meets the second vital criterion of effective advertising – relevance and persuasiveness in relation to the defined target market.

As we might expect, Benetton is stoutly defending its position, but I suspect that its long-standing com- mitment to controversy may ultimately have to be tempered if the brand is to continue to prosper. Benetton may have to find a vehicle that combines the need to be noticed with that of communicating something more directly about the products it sells,

in a way that gives consumers a convincing and meaningful sense of their worth or superiority.

Creative people have little difficulty conceiving images and ideas that shock and, in an increasingly competitive international advertising environment, the ability to produce ideas that attract attention is a fundamental prerequisite of any creative department.

To achieve such impact in an advertising message communicating and persuading effectively across country borders remains the key challenge and benchmark of great global advertising.

John Shannon is president of Grey International.

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