Sears kills agreement with Benetton over Death Row ads

Today's question: Have you ever heard of a major American retail company that puts principle ahead of profits? Well, I have and it's Chicago-based retailing giant Sears, Roebuck and Co., which earlier this month cancelled a potential $100 million marketing agreement with Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton because of Benetton's repugnant "We, On Death Row" advertising campaign.

It made me want to rush right up to Meadowood Mall and buy something at Sears.

As Chicago Tribune business columnist David Greising wrote about the Sears decision, "Benetton was asking for it. Begging for it, even. How nice to see someone finally give it to them." Amen!

He called the decision "long-overdue payback for Benetton's tasteless and cynically manipulative advertising campaigns." The company had based prior ad campaigns on photographs of Bosnian war victims, terminal AIDS patients, copulating horses and even a perverse photo of a Catholic priest kissing a nun. Benetton describes these aberrations as "socially conscious advertising." But sick is more like it.

Sears severed its ties with the trendy Italian clothier on Feb. 18 just hours after weeping relatives of people whose killers starred in the Benetton ads picketed in New York and Houston.

As the Associated Press noted, "The death row ads are designed to make a social statement - in this case against capital punishment - but they say nothing about the victims of the crimes." The Benetton campaign, featuring condemned killers staring directly into the camera, "reopened wounds and brought back a lot of painful memories," said a Sears spokesman in something of an understatement.

Sears also listened to Chicago Alderman (councilman) Ed Burke, a former policeman who was angered over Benetton's use of an Illinois Death Row inmate who had killed a Chicago police officer in 1982. Apparently, Burke and his colleagues told Sears they would reconsider a $13 million redevelopment loan if the company didn't pull the plug on its unsavory association with Benetton. Who's next? Gerald Gallego?

Benetton just didn't get it. The company's creative director, Oliviero Toscani, the genius who invented this obnoxious ad campaign, said the killers in his photos are victims too.

"You only have to look in these faces to be convinced of it," he said. "I think our campaign is courageous and ahead of its time. I had hoped the Americans would be more courageous." But courage isn't the word that comes to mind when we consider a company willing to use photos of death row inmates to sell T-shirts.

As a former volunteer victims' rights advocate, I've seen the pain and anguish caused by convicted killers up close and personal. And there's nothing uplifting about it. No matter how you feel about the death penalty, no noble social purpose is served by glorifying murderers.

At the same time, I believe they're entitled to their full legal rights within the judicial process in order to confirm their guilt before they're executed. Some accused killers in Illinois and elsewhere have recently been exonerated by DNA evidence, and that's as it should be.

Although everything possible should be done to protect the rights of the accused, we should never forget the victims of these horrendous crimes, and their families and loved ones. Not long ago, I spoke to a Carson City couple whose daughter had been killed in a brutal murder a few years ago. Can you imagine how they would feel if they picked up Vanity Fair magazine and saw their daughter's killer staring back at them?

Fortunately, Benetton didn't photograph any Nevada Death Row inmates for its infamous ad campaign. They did photograph some in Missouri, however, and that state's attorney general promptly sued the company for fraudulent misrepresentation and trespass by deceit. When Missouri authorities granted permission for the photos, they were told that Benetton's project was sponsored by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Britain's Advertising Standards Authority is also investigating complaints about the controversial campaign.

Benetton's Mr. Toscani revealed the company's deep cynicism when he admitted that "the revocation of a contract can sometimes be profitable, rekindling interest." His self-serving statements reminded me of when Calvin Klein executives were trying to justify an ad campaign featuring photos of children in their underwear as some sort of "cutting edge" social commentary. That followed their "heroin chic" ad campaign.

When Sears and Benetton signed a marketing agreement in 1998, Forbes magazine dubbed them "the odd couple." Although at one time Benetton had hundreds of stores in the U.S., its retail empire fell apart in the 1980s. Today, while Benetton operates 7,000 stores in 120 countries, it generates only 5 percent of its sales in the U.S. Actually, zero would be a better number as far as I'm concerned.

Perhaps Benetton should forget about the U.S. and concentrate its sick advertising messages on ignorant suckers in the other 119 countries where it does business. Tribune columnist Greising spoke for me when he wrote that "commercial free speech too often betrays us because it's always a one-way conversation: Anything goes, so long as the cash registers ring."

Sears got it right, however, and if Death Row ever adopts a Casual Fridays dress code, Benetton will have that market all to itself. It couldn't happen to a more deserving company.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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