Should Benetton water down its advertising impact?

Shock tactics may be a thing of the past for fashion brand Benetton, which appears to be putting its politically and culturally controversial ads back into storage.

After almost two decades of using shocking executions, the family-owned Italian clothes retailer is thought to be on the verge of appointing its first advertising agency.

Chairman Luciano Benetton’s claim that “communication should not be commissioned from outside the company, but conceived from within its heart” no longer appears to ring true, although the company denies reports that TBWA/London and Drugstore have been shortlisted to come up with a non-political, product-led campaign to address a recent decline in fortunes.

A Benetton spokeswoman says: “Benetton is not looking for an agency. All advertising will continue to be dealt with in house.”

Benetton’s sales have dropped from more than â¬2bn (&£1.3bn) in 2001 to â¬1.6bn (&£1.1bn) in 2004 (Mintel). And in the light of the current downbeat retail climate across Europe, experts are not predicting a strong performance for the company in 2005.

Collaboration between photographer Oliviero Toscani and Benetton’s creative research centre Fabrica resulted in a series of iconic campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s. Poster images including a dying Aids victim, and blood-spattered clothes belonging to a dead Bosnian soldier were employed to raise awareness of Aids, war and racism in promoting the United Colours of Benetton range.

Though the visuals themselves were at times shocking, many people were upset not by what they saw, but the context in which it was presented. Critics found it unacceptable that such posters were used to drive profit. In Italy, where Benetton has almost half of its 5,000 stores, all but one newspaper refused to carry an ad using an image of a war cemetery during the Gulf War in 1991.

But fundamental changes have taken place at Benetton since then. In 2003, the founding family announced it was scaling back its day-to-day involvement in the business and brought in an executive team led by chief executive Silvano Cassano. The new management soon announced a strategic plan aimed at better equipping Benetton to compete with key rivals such as H&M and Inditex-owned Zara.

It seems Benetton’s advertising may be given a more pragmatic feel – something some argue would be a loss to the industry. St Luke’s managing director Neil Henderson says: “Benetton has set up such an expectation of its brand as something different from the rest, that it would be strange and a little sad to see it pull back to the world of Gap and H&M.”

Henderson says Benetton made youngsters stand up for the brand against “out-of-touch” parents who were offended or disgusted by the strong advertising images. “That’s a powerful tool,” he says. “A brand crusading for issues young people feel passionately about is attractive to consumers who want their clothes to tell the world who they are and what they are about.”

Bartle Bogle Hegarty managing director Derek Robson says that although Benetton might perceive more retail-friendly communication to be a safer option amid a retail slump, the hard-hitting campaigns of old may represent its best chance of a turnaround.

“It’s a long time since Benetton shocked anybody. Young consumers may not remember when it held such an aggressive, sensationalist position,” he states.

“The high street is having a hard time and retailers will be tempted to return to basics with their campaigns, rather than to try anything different. But love them or hate them, those Benetton ads were a talking-point, and might not be a bad place for the company to start if it is looking to make an impact. After all, impact is in the soul of the Benetton brand.”

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