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Controversial Benetton Ad Nabs Press Grand Prix

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Benetton's controversial "Unhate" campaign, which find world leaders lip-locked with their biggest adversaries, won the Press Grand Prix at the Cannes Ad Festival today.

When the campaign launched last year, it was met with resistance. One ad in the series had featured Pope Benedict XVI kissing a Muslim imam and was pulled within hours of launch after the Vatican denounced it.

In response, Benetton posted on its Facebook page at the time: "We reiterate that the meaning of this campaign is exclusively to combat the culture of hatred in all its forms. We are therefore sorry that the use of the image of the Pope and the Imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful. In corroboration of our intentions, we have decided, with immediate effect, to withdraw this image from every publication."

The Pope execution was not entered into the awards show, but the entire campaign was met with controversy; some print publications refused the ads, including the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian and Elle Francia. Well-known wide-circulation titles in global markets, however, such as The Economist, Newsweek, Le Monde's M magazine in France and Germany's Fur Sie did run them.

The campaign has already been recognized this awards season. Benetton's internal agency Fabrica Treviso and MDC Partners' 72andSunny also took home some hardware at One Show last month.

WHAT IT IS: The winning ads depict political and religious leaders kissing about the banner "Unhate." The executions honored depict President Barack Obama kissing Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and German chancellor Angela Merkel with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

WHY IT WON: The press jury celebrated the ad for both its universal message and ability to go beyond just the printed page. "We feel that Benetton is such a strong brand that making its comeback after 25 years, said jury president Tham Khai Meng. "It cuts through all cultures, nationalities, faith even. …It has heart impact and gut impact and promotes a global debate." That very debate is what made the campaign literally jump off the page into international news and online conversation as people around the world weighed in on whether they loved or hated it. "All advertising wants to get people talking about it," said U.K. juror Steve Jones. "It starts as a print ad and then it goes online and people start talking about it and blogging about it."

THE JURY: The 18 jurors from 17 different countries celebrated "Unhate" for its universality and social responsibility.

"It's part of our role as communicators to also talk about social responsibility," said Ogilvy alum Mr. Meng. "Brands are coming to us asking for this type of communications. Consumers also want to do good as they spend."

CONTROVERSY OR CLEAR WINNER? The "Unhate" campaign rose above the rest, said Mr. Jones. The jury awarded 94 awards from about 6,000 entries. "The reason we chose this is because it stood out on the wall," he said of the Benetton work. The Italian retailer has long been known for both provocative and socially charged work. "It's not like traditional advertising. It's not making a point about the clothes, its brand history. It doesn't obey the rules."

"You can like it, you can dislike it, you can't ignore it," said juror Komal Bedi Sohal from the United Arab Emirates.

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