Benetton's U.S.-produced advertising eschews any hint of the controversial. (photo) U.S. ADS TAKE MORE RESTRAINED TONE

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While a number of Benetton retailers in Germany protests the company's politically potent ads, their U.S. counterparts have quietly transformed their brand identity to fit an older, more conservative audience.

Benetton's 150 U.S. outlets last spring began working with Chiat/Day, New York, to develop a more sophisticated image for the fall season. Starting in October, an insert in Vogue and ads in major daily papers showed older models wearing more tailored clothing. An eight-page insert appears again next month in Vogue and The New York Times.

Copy on several of the ads targets working women with Nike-esque musings: "The right suit. a herringbone suit. kind of professional. kind of, well. not. like a business guy, only without the tie. it puts you on the fast track. helps you stay on the up-and-up. at least until five o'clock."

"The images that emanate from Italy we've determined are not really appropriate for us-they're too young," said Peter Frisola, director of communications, Benetton Services Corp. "We've reduced prices 20% to 30% and are now very competitive with Ann Taylor and Banana Republic. We're not just selling sweaters to teen-agers anymore."

Although Mr. Frisola could not give an exact number, Benetton's U.S. sales are roughly $100 million, a fraction of the company's $2 billion business worldwide. Total sales in North and South America and the Carribean grew 19% in 1993.

To launch the spring collection, Benetton next month takes to the airwaves in the U.S. with its first-ever TV commercials. Three 15-second spots running in Chicago and Washington will appear on cable and network programs attracting twentysomething audiences.

Mr. Frisola said the apparel-focused commercials should suit more conservative markets, where "people just buy the sweaters" and not necessarily the company's ideology.

U.S. retailers haven't organized against the traditionally political Benetton ads, yet several seem glad for a change in direction.

"There have been no official complaints, but we do get a few grumblings here and there," said Karen Huelsman, a retailer in Connecticut.

Despite the new ads, Benetton's U.S. office still hastens to defend the company's politically conscious marketing and the impact it has had on brand awareness in the U.S.

"When it comes to Benetton [in the] U.S., you're talking about a small chain of stores," Mr. Frisola said. "Yet we've been very successful positioning our brand as more than our sheer numbers would indicate."

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