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Benetton's European advertising-if you can call it that-is certainly controversial. The Italian clothing marketer's ads, offering such images as a dying AIDS patient, a bloody uniform from Croatia and a war cemetery, have even led some German outlets to rebel; they claim the ads hurt business. But a French court has gone way too far in granting $9,600 damages to each of three AIDS patients who sued Benetton, saying its posters showing body parts with "HIV positive" tattooed on them were offensive to them.

The Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance, the country's highest civil court, said the ads allowed people with AIDS to be "exploited in a provocative manner," and found the company had launched "an ambiguous ad campaign outside the domain of commercial activities." Well, that's not the point. If everyone had to prove each ad sold something, half of Madison Ave. would be in jail.

An ad is a public statement, that's all. Advertisers often turn their space over to a public issue, or to honor a public figure, or to promote a worthy cause. Many do so with the hope they will improve their image with consumers. Benetton, in the German case, cites favorable reaction from people who applaud its public spirit (and who, presumably, are therefore more disposed to shop at Benetton).

Are their ads in bad taste? No doubt about it. A waste of money? Probably. But a punishable offense? No way. Perhaps France does not value freedom of speech as it is valued in the U.S. We get a hint of that in the shocking statement from Jacques Bille of the French Association of Advertising Agencies, who said of the court's decision, "This is very satisfying. Bad advertising has never caused any good to the advertising business, especially when it is against the rights of the people and the tastes of society. Provocation does not pay anymore." Mr. Bille added: "It is a good lesson for the advertising community. This is the end of a baneful period for the advertising world."

We think the baneful period for advertising will continue at least until Mr. Bille no longer makes such stupid statements on its behalf. The advertising industry doesn't need "lessons" from a court that has so little regard for freedom of speech.

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