Benetton rolls the dice
Death-Row campaign, latest in a series of risky ads

Jerome Mallett is the star of a multi-national advertising campaign for clothing retailer Benneton Group SPA, although you probably wouldn't guess it from his accommodations on death row, where he awaits a lethal injection.

Mallett is one of the 26 inmates who posed for a 90-page brochure titled "We on death row," that appeared as a supplement in Talk magazine earlier this year. Like much Benetton advertising over the years, the campaign generated considerable controversy.

Soon after the magazine was published, the state of Missouri, where several of the photos were taken, filed suit against Benetton alleging that Missouri Department of Corrections officials were misled as to final use of the photos.

At the same time relatives of convicts' murder victims began picketing Sears stores. The retailer reacted immediately, canceling its contract with Benetton, and ordering all merchandise pulled from its store shelves. The ad campaign was subsequently expanded in several markets, but banned in about a dozen U.S. states.

Controversy and Benetton ads are old acquaintances. In the past, the clothing retailer has attracted attention for social conscious-raising ads featuring a dying aids victim, a black horse mating with a white one, and Palestinians and Israelis coexisting as friends.

But the death row campaign has generated an unusual amount of opprobrium, especially within the advertising community, where both Advertising Age magazine in the United States, and Marketing here in Canada have given prominence to articles attacking Benetton for, in particular, its insensitivity to the murder victims.

Setting aside for the moment whether Benetton should be involved in the death penalty debate, and whether once involved, it should profit by tying its position on capital punishment to its brand image ­ the first thing advertisers should note is how stunningly effective the ads are.

The deceptively simple print ads feature Mallett and other convicts photographed sympathetically looking into the camera with the headline "sentenced to death" in bold type, along with the Benetton logo, and a Web-site address to go for more information on the campaign.

The ads are so effective, since by photographing the convicts sympathetically, and up close, they force the viewer to look into the convict's eyes. Since the crimes are not explained, the viewer is left asking himself "why is this person going to die?"

In other words the viewer gets involved in the ad -- he can't help it -- here is a human interest story, someone, who looks like uncle Bob, or the plumber Rick is going to diebut why?

What adds immeasurably to the ad's impact, is that most have us have never seen death row inmates portrayed sympathetically. Because of the onerous restrictions American prisons place on media access to death row inmates, when they are seen, they are almost always in that hideous orange prison garb ­ which in itself subtly tells the viewer "heythis man is in prison garb, therefore he must be guilty."

When we do see death-row inmates, it is usually in an interview, sitting beside some slick, high profile celebrity, with hair styled, and makeup applied who has flown in to do the questioning.

The poor (the vast majority of death row inmates are poor), disheveled inmate, who has no money for clothes, a stylist and makeup, looks like a fashion disaster beside the celebrity.

Because of the way our society favorably judges beautiful, well-dressed people, the inevitable result, is that the inmate is judged unfavorably, relative to the celebrity, simply because he is poor.

Another consideration is the way capital punishment is routinely applied ­ anonymously, quietly, by men in white coats, in some prison basement, away from public view. Few people ever witness the event, and photos and cameras are banned. The net impact is that the public gets off easy ­ they can support capital punishment, without ever having to confront its effect: the state taking an individual's life.

Benetton's genius is that they turn the entire situation around. By focusing on the inmate's faces, his prison clothes, the bars in his cell, as well as most other indications of his social status are cropped out of the picture. The viewer no longer "knows" that he is looking at a guilty criminal, he is left to confront the man, as well as the question: why is he going to die?

Complaints that the ad campaign is unsympathetic to the murder victims are exaggerated. Asking society to change a death sentence to life imprisonment, is a perfectly valid request and need not have a bearing on the victim's loved ones.

It is also disingenuous to imply, as many did, that Benetton was under obligation to mention the inmate's crimes, as well as their victims in the ads. This is advocacy advertising -- after all, when a car company runs an ad campaign, they don't show the car accidents.

But the "sentenced to death" campaign is a risky one for Benetton. Close to 70 per cent of the American public supports the death penalty. And few of these are likely to be sympathetic to Mallett, and his pals on death row.




Photo Caption: Death row inmate Jerome Mallett, shown here in a Benetton ad placed in L'actualité magazine, is the unlikely star of the clothing retailer's advertising campaign.

Diekmeyer can be reached at

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  © 1998 Peter Diekmeyer Communications Inc.