The Italian clothing company Benetton has been heavily criticized by the Vatican for using an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing an imam on the mouth in its latest shock advertising campaign. The controversial image, which was hung from a bridge near the holy city Thursday morning, shows the Pope making out with Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb, one of Islam's leading figures.
Other digitally-altered images in the campaign, which is part of the firm's support for the "Unhate Foundation," show various world leaders kissing on the mouth: President Barack Obama and Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao; French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ...
Obviously, for several reasons, many people are outraged.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Executive Deputy Chairman Alessandro Benetton discussed the company's message. "It means not hating," he said. "In a moment of darkness, with the financial crisis, what's going on in North African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy."
While I appreciate the creativity of the effort, Benetton's in-house communication agency Fabrica doctored the pictures without anyone's permission. Even though these are all public figures, this still strikes me as unethical and tasteless. In addition, while I am in no way a homophobe, I don't understand how open-mouth kissing symbolizes "Unhate." What it shows me is sexuality. Which is fine if that's what one's promoting (as many fashion designers do). But he's not.
My gay friend Sean agreed.
"All (the ads) are is gasoline. And this guy (Benetton])just poured it all over the hate fire," he said. "I'm all for pushing buttons. But if he was trying to promote peace he should have done something more universally acceptable. And if he was promoting gay rights he should have used something less provocative."
I agreed: What Catholic is going to be more accepting to homosexuals after seeing their Pope being made to appear as if he were engaging in an activity that is both against his faith and morals?
Although my instinctive reaction is to snub the ads, I'm curiously still drawn to them. Art is not always meant to make the viewer feel comfortable. Sometimes it is meant to elicit an uncomfortable reaction.
I don't believe that showing two aging statesmen engaged in a passionate embrace with their lips locked is going to bring peace to any individual conflict the two might have. But viewers' reactions to the ads tell us something about ourselves.
What is more unsettling to us: Two men showing love for each other, or violent conflict between countries. Isn't it just a little disturbing that most of us think it's the former?
I imagine Benetton wished to incite controversy and elicit a semblance of thought in a world floating on the waves of hate. And while unhate is nowhere on the horizon after their release, love them or hate them, the intention to create a reaction worked.
Sarah T. Schwab is a Sunday OBSERVER contributor and Fredonia State graduate. Send comments to
or view her Web site at www.SarahTSchwab.com