United Killers of Benetton

Stuffed inside the shrink wrap alongside Chatterbox’s subscriber copy of February’s Talk magazine is a glossy new Benetton catalog titled “We, on Death Row.” This elegant advertorial product intersperses color photographs of death-row inmates with somber quotations about the evils of capital punishment from Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., and other giants of the fashion industry. The mostly one-piece garments worn by the inmates, which come in bright hues of yellow, blue, and (especially) red–to judge from the photos, red is the dominant color this season on death row–are not, Chatterbox presumes, actually available at Benetton outlets. But apparently, Benetton hopes that some of the death-row inmates’ existential glamour (“They broke the rules. They defied the order,” writes someone named Ken Shulman in an introductory essay) will rub off on the retail clothing chain. (To check out the abbreviated Web version of Benetton’s death-row advertorial, click here.)

According to a press release posted on Benetton’s home page, Benetton is launching a campaign that is

about the death penalty [italics Benetton’s; don’t ask Chatterbox what they mean]. Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral consideration [!], this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment, so that no one around the world, [sic] will consider the death penalty neither [sic] as [sic] a distant problem nor [sic] as [sic] news that occasionally appear [sic] on TV. … The campaign will appear on billboards and on the pages of the major news publications in Europe, America and Asia in January 2000. … With this new initiative, Benetton has once again chosen to look reality in the face by tackling a social issue, as it did in previous campaigns that focused on war, Aids, discrimination and racism. Bitterly attacked by some and internationally acclaimed by others, Benetton’s campaigns have managed to tear down the wall of indifference contributing at [sic] raising the awareness of universal problems among world’s [sic] citizens. At the same time, they have paved the way for innovative modes of corporate communication [italics Chatterbox’s].

Don’t get Chatterbox wrong; like Benetton, he is opposed to capital punishment. But its attempt to harness this principled stand to the selling of high-necked mohair sweaters, Peruvian folk ponchos, and lycra-lined lace panties does tend to trivialize the issue (in much the same way that its previous campaigns trivialized war, AIDS, discrimination, and racism). The catalog also objectifies real people. Looking at the photos of murderers awaiting execution, one feels invited to ask–are they human beings? Or are they objets de couture?

No doubt Benetton would consider this characterization terribly unfair. After all, it didn’t just put together a bunch of photographs; it also hired Ken Shulman (“a free-lance journalist who works for Newsweek,” according to the Web press release) to conduct interviews with the inmates. Here are some of the questions Shulman asked:

What does this place sound like at night?
What did you think of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?
What’s it like when you lose a person you’ve been close to?
What’s wrong with the world today?
Do you think you’re unlucky?
What is your favorite part of the Bible?
Do you miss real food?

Here are some questions Shulman never asked (or, if he did, never included in the final version):

Why did you kill that person?
Would you be sorry you killed if you’d never been caught?
Can you imagine circumstances in which you’d kill again?

According to a note at the end of the catalog, “Individuals were not permitted to speak about the crime, guilt or innocence, or prison conditions unless specifically requested by their attorney.” Benetton might just as well have added, “And we had no interest in discussing these crimes with the families of the murder victims.” (The prison inmates may be objectified, but the people they killed don’t seem to exist at all.) Chatterbox is especially perplexed by Benetton’s reluctance to investigate–even inquire about–the guilt or innocence of these death-row inmates. The judicial system’s tendency to mark the odd innocent soul for death is, after all, one of the more powerful arguments against capital punishment. At first, Chatterbox thought perhaps Benetton didn’t probe individual cases because it didn’t want to demonstrate that most death-row inmates are indeed guilty. (Not even the most bleeding-heart death-penalty opponent would dispute that.) On reflection, though, Chatterbox thinks Benetton’s fear is more likely the opposite: It doesn’t want to find any innocent men or women. The point, after all, is to be outré. Killers are outré. Wrongly accused prison inmates are merely tragic. Imagine trying to sell a pair of shantung trousers with the pitch, “It will make you look like a victim!”

(Click here for a follow-up to this article.)