The colors of exploitation: Benetton on Death Row

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The bloody uniform of a dead soldier. The body of an AIDS victim at the moment of death. The sight of teeming, desperate refugees clawing for purchase on a ship's cargo net. All to advertise colorful mix 'n' match separates.

Till now, it was easy to denounce Benetton Group's supposedly socially conscious advertising for the cynical, trite garbage it was.

Flattering itself as courageous, this shockvertising was actually a cowardly assault on the sensibilities of unsuspecting readers, who have no expectation to be confronted with human tragedy by the ready-to-wear industry. Furthermore, though Benetton thinks itself profound, what it promulgates has been utterly banal. Protests against war, disease and poverty? Such insight. As if there were a prevailing pro-war-disease-and-poverty sentiment that needs to be stamped out once and for all. Spare us the consciousness raising, please. There is nothing a sportswear company can add to the discussion.

Except more discussion. Creative Director Oliviero Toscani's work could always be counted on for publicity, the engine running the Benetton advertising machine. It was never about ideas. It was about shock, outrage and buzz.

So now comes Toscani's magnum opus, a 96-page insert on capital punishment, and we in this space sharpened our knives in anticipation. But what we discovered is an advertising exercise too powerful and provocative to be summarily dismissed.

After two years of interviews and photographs, Toscani and writer Ken Shulman present interview excerpts with three dozen condemned prisoners languishing on Death Row in various U.S. prisons.

Banal this material is not. Sometimes it is poignant, sometimes pitiful, sometimes chilling. And sometimes it is shocking, such as the case of Leroy Orange, condemned in Illinois for the 1984 murder of four. We are presented with Orange's claim that he was tortured by police into a confession, and that, though a Chicago cop was fired over the incident, Orange has never been retried. It is of such apparent injustices that journalistic crusades are made.

But, as this convict's interview puts in sharp relief, "We, on Death Row" is not very sound journalism.

There is no discussion of the trial, of other evidence, of the nature of the crimes themselves. Benetton struck sweetheart deals with the lawyers and the prisons prohibiting such questions, leaving nothing for the reader to evaluate the guilt, innocence, cruelty, savagery or even the remorse of the convict.

So make no mistake; this project is not an evenhanded discussion of the issues behind capital punishment. It is a screed. A sales job. Sophistry. Propaganda. And, in that way, more of the Benetton usual.

You could argue, on the other hand, that the details of the crime are irrelevant. If the question here is the morality of state-sponsored execution, then even Hitler's crimes are not the point, but rather the nature of the punishment. It is therefore a legitimate enterprise of advocacy to portray -- as a countervailing force to popular bloodlust -- the humanity of the condemned.

Faced with the resourceful artistry of Alberto Reyes-Camarena, who uses M&M's to paint in his cell ("I use the candies for their colors, and I make butterflies from them"); the nostalgic longings of William Jones ("The smell of waking up early in the morning . . . watching the dew, the aroma once the sun starts coming out"); and the plaintive observation of Edgar Hope ("We still humans. We still have feelings"), perhaps we as a society would be less inclined to think of the condemned as beasts.

For it is easier to kill a beast than a man.

Yes, fair enough, these words have impact and the issue is worth exploring. The question is, what standing does Benetton have in exploring it? And the answer is, finally, upon careful reflection:

None. None at all.

Setting aside the matter of corporate motives (a very suspicious matter to set aside), there is no escaping that this effort, like all of its pretentious predecessors, is fundamentally brand-image advertising. Not journalism. Not art. Not politics. Not public service. It is promotion -- ambitious, provocative, challenging self-promotion.

And there you are. There is no brand -- not a single one -- that has the right to increase its sales on the backs, on the misery, on the fates of condemned men and women, much less their slaughtered victims.

Such exploitation is simply criminal, no matter how well intended, no matter how well received. No matter how well executed.

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