Netanyahu, Abbas Smooch in Benetton Ad; UPDATE: Pope Asks That Ads Be Pulled

Italian Retailer Steps up the Controversy With New Print Ads Also Featuring Lip Lock Between Pope Benedict XVI and Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb

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Besides brightly colored sweaters and polo-tees, Benetton's brand has always been defined by its polarizing advertising, often focused on social themes such as race relations, war and AIDS that help fuel talk value for the brand.

With it's latest push, the Italian retailer is decidedly going for shock value. In a new campaign that launches today, Benetton depicts political and religious leaders kissing, and very intimately, in the closed-eye, tilted-neck sort. Among them, U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese leader Hu Jintao, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Pope Benedict XVI and Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, the head of the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and known as a center for Sunni Islamic studies.

What's the point? Benetton says it's a metaphor for promoting tolerance between people from different walks of life.

The ads have been rejected, unsurprisingly, by a number of publications, including the International Herald Tribune, the Guardian and Elle Francia. But they will be picked up by some well-known titles with broad reach. The print work is slated to run in this month in The Economist, New York Magazine, Newsweek, Monocle, Le Monde's M magazine in France, and Germany's Fur Sie and Suddeutsche Zeitung magazines.

The campaign also leans heavily on social media, including a website that Benetton is calling a "Kiss Wall" where consumers can upload pictures of themselves kissing. It has also created a short film about spreading love, or as Benetton calls it, "unhate." All of the work was created by Benetton's internal agency, Fabrica, which is based in Treviso, Italy, in partnership with MDC Partners-owned 72andSunny, out of its Amsterdam office.

Alessandro Benetton, VP at the company and son of Benetton's founder Luciano, unveiled the campaign today in Paris. He said in a statement: "It fits perfectly with the values and history of Benetton, which chooses social issues and actively promotes humanitarian causes that could not otherwise have been communicated on a global scale, and in doing so has given a sense and a value to its brand, building a lasting dialogue with the people of the world."

It's also a smart move considering the company -- which had been building year-over-year sales up through last year -- in its latest earnings period saw net income fall 33% to $42.3 million. The dip was largely blamed on economic conditions. Currently Benetton has about 6,000 stores and its 2010 sales figures show that nearly 50% of its business is in Italy, about 30% is the rest of Europe, 16% is Asia, and the remaining 5% is from U.S.A and other parts of the world.


Within a matter of hours of the launch of this campaign, Benetton and the agency that its internal shop Fabrica is working with, MDC Partners' 72andSunny, heard directly from the Pope asking that the image of him kissing Mr. el-Tayeb be yanked from the campaign. On its Facebook page, Benetton posted: "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."

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