Benetton's “World without Borders”:
Buying Social Change

Henry A. Giroux


Small Beginnings and Global Controversies

Diversity is good...your culture (whoever you are) is as important as our culture (whoever we are).

— Colors, no. 1

In 1965, Luciano Benetton and three siblings established a small business, Fratelli Benetton, near Treviso, Italy. Originally designed to produce colorful sweaters, the business expanded into a full range of clothing apparel and eventually developed into a two billion dollar fashion empire producing eighty million pieces of clothing a year for seven thou­sand franchise stores in over one hundred countries.

Benetton's advertising campaign over the last decade has been instrumental in its success in the fashion world. The advertising campaign is important not merely as a means for assessing Benetton commercial such success in extending its name recognition; it is crucial for understanding how the philosophy of the company has attempted to reinscribe its image within a broader set of political and cultural concerns. In 1984, Benetton hired Oliviero Toscani, an award-winning photographer, to head its advertising campaign. Given a free hand with the advertising budget, Toscani's early work focused on culturally diverse young people dressed in Benetton attire and engaged in a variety of seemingly aimless and playful acts. Linking the colors of Benetton clothes to the diverse "colors" of their customers from all over the world, Toscani attempted to use the themes of racial harmony and world peace to register such differences within a wider unifying articulation.

In 1985, Toscani adopted the "United Colors of Benetton" as a recurring trademark of the Benetton ideology. In 1991, Toscani initiated a publicity campaign that removed Benetton merchandise from the firm's advertising, and started using its eighty million dollar global ad budget to publish controversial and disturbing photographs in magazines and on billboards. Taking full control of the ad blitz, Toscani personally photographed many of the images that dominated the 1991 Benetton campaign. These included a number of compelling images that created a provocative effect: variously colored, blown-up condoms floating in the air; a nun kissing a priest on the lips; a row of test tubes filled with blood; and a newborn baby girl covered in blood and still attached to her umbilical cord. In 1992 Toscani embarked on his most dramatic effort to combine high fashion and politics in the service of promoting the Benetton name. He selected a series of highly charged, photojournalistic images referencing, among other things, the AIDS crisis, environmental disaster, political violence, war, exile, and natural catastrophe. These appeared in various journals and magazines as well as on billboards without written text except for the conspicuous insertion of the green and white United Colors of Benetton logo located in the margins of the photograph.

Benetton's shift in advertising strategy between 1983 and 1991 needs to be considered as part of a wider politics and pedagogy of representation. The earlier photographs representing children of diverse races and colors dressed in Benetton clothing have a "netherworld quality that gives the viewers the impression they're glimpsing some fashionable heaven." 1 Depicted in these photographs of children hugging and holding hands is a portrayal of racial harmony and difference that appears both banal and sterile. The exaggerated precision of the models and primary colors used in the advertisements render racial unity as a purely aesthetic category while eliminating racial conflict completely in this" two-dimensional world of make believe. In addition, these colorful images appear almost too comfortable and seem at odds with a world marked by political, economic, and cultural conflict. In the early ads difference, then, is largely subordinated to the logic of the marketplace and commerce. At the same time, the harmony and consensus implied in these ads often mock concrete racial, social, and cultural differences as they are constituted amid hierarchical relations of struggle, power, and authority. Benetton's corporate image in this case seems strangely contrary to its own market research which indicated that its target customers—18-34 year old women—are more socially active and aware than any generation that precedes them." 2

Oliviero Toscani for United Colors of Benetton

The switch in the ad campaign to controversial photojournalistic images reflects an attempt on the part of Benetton to redefine its corporate image. In order to define itself as a company concerned with social change, Benetton suspended its use of upscale representations in its mass advertising campaign, especially in a world where "denial in the service of upbeat consumerism is no longer a workable strategy as we are continually overwhelmed by disturbing and even cataclysmic events." 3 In a postmodern world caught in the disruptive forces of nationalism, famine, violence, and war, such representations linked Benetton's image less to the imperatives of racial harmony than to the forces of cultural uniformity and yuppie colonization. Moreover, Benetton's move away from an appeal to utility to one of social responsibility provides an object lesson in how promotional culture increasingly uses pedagogical practices to shift its emphasis from selling a product to selling an image of corporate responsibility. 4 Given the increase in sales, profits, and the widespread publicity Benetton has received, the campaign appears to have worked wonders.

The response to the campaign inaugurated in 1991 was immediate. Benetton was both condemned for its appropriation of serious issues to sell goods and praised for incorporating urgent social concerns into its advertising. In many cases, a number of the Benetton ads were either banned from particular countries or refused by specific magazines. One of the most controversial ads portrayed AIDS patient David Kirby surrounded by his family shortly before he died. The Kirby ad became the subject of heated debate among various groups in a number of countries. In spite of the criticism and perhaps in part due to it, the company's profits have risen twenty-four percent to 132 million dollars worldwide in 1991. The Benetton name has even infiltrated popular literary culture, with Douglas Coupland coining the phrase "Benetton Youth" in his novel Shampoo Planet to refer to global kids whose histories, memories, and experiences began in the Reagan era of greed and con­ specious consumption. Adweek reports that because of the success of the Benetton campaign, Toscani has become something of a commercial "star" and has been asked by American Express to develop marketing concepts for them. Benetton's stock is up because of the visibility of the company, and David Roberts, an analyst with Nomura International/London, claims that Benetton's "name recognition is approaching that of Coca-Cola." 5 

Benetton's practical response to the controversy has been threefold. First, Benetton and its spokespersons have reacted aggressively within a number of public forums and debates in order to defend its advertising policies by either condemning the criticism as a form of censorship or criticizing other ad companies for producing advertising that merely engages in the most reductionist forms of pragmatism. Second, it has used the debate to reorder its identity as a corporate force for social responsibility. Third, it has seized upon the controversy itself as a pretext for further marketing of its ideology in the form of books, magazines, talks, interviews, articles, and the use of stars such as Spike Lee to endorse its position in the debate. 6

Benetton has attempted to articulate and defend its position through material found in campaign copy sent to its various stores around the world, particularly the fall/winter and spring/summer 1992 versions. Moreover, it has attempted to defray criticism of its ads by allowing selected executives to speak in interviews, the press, and various popular magazines. The three major spokespersons for Benetton are Luciano Benetton, founder and managing director, Oliviero Toscani, creative director, and Peter Fressola, Benetton's director of communications in North America. All three provide different versions of a similar theme: Benetton is not about selling sweaters but social responsibility, and it is a company that represents less a product than a lifestyle and world-view.

Recently elected as a Senator to the Italian Parliament, Luciano Benetton is the principle ideologue in the Benetton apparatus. He is chiefly responsible for defining the structuring principles that guide Benetton as both a corporate identity and ideological force. His own political beliefs are deeply rooted in the neoliberal language of the free market, privatization, removal of government from the marketplace, and advocacy of business principles as the basis for a new social imaginary. "Hence, it is not surprising that in addition to defending the ads for evoking public awareness of controversial issues, Luciano Benetton readily admits that the advertising campaign "has a traditional make Benetton known around the world and to introduce the product to consumers." 7 More than any other spokesperson, Luciano Benetton articulates the company's position concerning the relationship between commerce and art and acts as a constant reminder that the bottom line for the company is profit, not social justice.

Peter Fressola, on the other hand, promotes Benetton's ideological position and claims that the ad campaign does not reflect the company's desire to sell sweaters. He argues, "We're not that stupid. We're doing corporate communication. We're sponsoring these images in order to change people's minds and create compassion around social issues. We think of it as art with a social message." 8 Of course, the question at stake here is whose minds Benetton wants to shape. In part, the answer lies in its own advertising material which makes it quite clear that "various studies have shown that in 1992 consumers are as concerned by what a company stands for as they are about the price/value relationship of that company's product." 9 There is nothing in Fressola's message that challenges the legacy of the corporate use of communications to advance, if only tacitly, "some kind of self-advantaging exchange." 10

The moral high ground that Benetton wants to occupy appears to be nothing less than an extension of market research. When questioned about the use of the Benetton logo imprinted on all of the photographs, Fressola, Toscani, and other spokespeople generally reply by evading the question and pointing to the use of such photographs as part of their support for art, controversy, and public dialogue around social issues. But the presence of the logo is no small matter. In light of their market research, which stresses what Raymond Loewy called the need for design­er corporate symbols to index visual memory retention, the presence of the Benetton logo partakes of a powerful advertising legacy. It asserts that, regardless of the form it takes, the purpose of advertising is to subordinate all values to the imperatives of profit and commercialization. Lowey's argument, "We want anyone who has seen the logotype, even fleetingly, to never forget it, or at least to forget it slowly," 11 provides a powerful indictment of Benetton's rationale and the claim that Benetton is engaging in a new form of corporate communication. By refusing to disrupt or challenge this haunting and revealing legacy of designer logos, communication in these terms appears to do nothing more than link the commodification of human tragedy with the imperatives of brand recognition while simultaneously asserting the discourse of aesthetic freedom and the moral responsibility of commerce. This is captured in part in a statement that appeared in their fall/winter 1992 advertising campaign literature:

Among the various means available to achieve the brand recognition that every company must have, we at Benetton believe our strategy for communication to be more effective for the company and more useful to society than would be yet another series of ads showing pretty girls wearing pretty clothes. 12

Toscani goes so far as to separate his economic role as the director of advertising from what he calls the process of communication by claiming rather blithely, "I am responsible for the company's communications; I am not really responsible for its economics." 13 Toscani appeals in this case to the moral high ground, one that he suggests is untarnished by the commercial context that informs the deep structure of his job. Should we assume that Benetton's market research in identifying target audiences has nothing to do with Toscani's creative endeavors? Or, perhaps, that Toscani has found a way to avoid linking his own corporate success to the rise of Benetton's name recognition in a global marketplace? Toscani is well aware of the relationship between representation and power, not to mention his own role in giving a new twist to the advertising of commodities as cultural signs in order to promote a particular system of exchange.

Post-Fordism and the Politics of Difference

Capital has fallen in love with difference; advertising thrives on selling us things that will enhance our uniqueness and individuality. ...From World Music to exotic holidays in Third-World locations, ethnic TV dinners to Peruvian knitted hats, cultural difference sells. 14

In the world of international capital, difference is a contentious and paradoxical concept. On the one hand, as individuals increasingly position themselves within and across a variety of identities, needs, and lifestyles, capital seizes upon such differences in order to create new markets and products. Ideas that hold the promise of producing social criticism are insinuated into products in an attempt to subordinate the dynamics of social struggle to the production of new lifestyles. On the other hand, difference is also a dangerous marker of those historical, political, social, and cultural borderlands where people who are considered the "Other" are often policed, excluded, and oppressed. Between the dynamics of commodification and resistance, difference becomes a site of conflict and struggle over bodies, desires, land, labor, and the distribution of resources. It is within the space between conflict and commercial appeal that difference carries with it the legacy of possible disruption and political struggle as well as the possibility for colonizing diverse markets. Within the logic of restructured global capital markets, cultural differences have to be both acknowledged and depoliticized in order to be contained. In a world riddled with conflicts over cultural, ethnic, and racial differences, Benetton defines difference in categorical rather than relational terms and in doing so accentuates a warmed-up diet of liberal pluralism and harmonious consensus.

Central to Benetton's celebration of cultural differences are the dynamics of economic restructuring and its own rise from a local business venture to a global marketing conglomerate. Benetton's commercial success and the ideological legitimation upon which it constructs its United Colors of Benetton worldview derives, in part, from its aggressive adaptation to the shifting economic and cultural cartography of what has been called post-Fordism.

Although post-Fordism is not an unproblematic term for designating the changes that have taken place in manufacturing and retailing in advanced industrial countries since 1950, it does focus attention on a number of economic and ideological tendencies that alert us to the need for new descriptions and analyses of the "shifting social and technical landscapes of modern industrial production regimes" that are refiguring the relationship between capital and everyday life. 15 Stuart Hall has succinctly described some of the most salient characteristics of post-Fordism:

"Post-Fordism" is a [broad] term, suggesting a whole new epoch distinct from the era of mass production.... It covers at least some of the following characteristics: a shift to the new information "technologies"; more flexible, decentralized forms of labor process and work organization; decline of the old manufacturing base and the growth of the "sunrise," computer-based industries; the hiving off or contracting out of functions and services; a greater emphasis on choice and product differentiation, on marketing, packaging, and design, on the "targeting" of consumers by lifestyle, taste, ad culture rather than by the categories of social class; a decline in the proportion of the skilled, male, manual working class, the rise of the service and white-collar classes and the "feminization" of the work force; an economy dominated by the multinationals, with their new international division of labor and their greater autonomy from nation-state control; and the "globalization" of the new financial markets, linked by the communications revolution. 16

Capitalizing on global shifts in the order of economic and cultural life, Benetton has seized upon post-Fordist production techniques and methods of retailing that integrate various aspects of production, design, distribution, and a flexible labor force into a single coordinated system. With great skill and ingenuity, Benetton uses its computerized planning systems, flexible production technology, and marketing resources to both forecast and respond immediately to consumer demands from all over the world. Once consumer orders from various Benetton retailers are tallied at the end of the day, they are sent to a centralized computer system that allows the orders to be filled within days. Benetton's concern with difference is in part rooted in the hard realities of a global market and its imperative to serve various consumer needs. But difference is more than just a feature of commerce; it is also about social movements, collective memories of resistance, and the struggle on the part of subordinate groups to reclaim their histories and collective voices. In response to the latter, Benetton has developed a representational politics in the service of a corporate narrative whose purpose is to harness difference as part of an ideology of promotion and political containment.

In this case, Benetton's post-Fordist economic policies are underwritten by a neoconservative political philosophy that supports minimum state intervention in the world of commerce, accentuates privatization in the form of subcontracting, wages a full-fledged assault on unionized labor, and dramatically expands the service sector. While preaching the gospel of social responsibility, Benetton has become a "corporate model" for new post-Fordist production techniques in which workers are increasingly forced to take jobs with less security, benefits, and wages. In the new world of subcontracting, more and more "office and factory employees are getting transplanted overnight to a temporary or subcontracting nether world [in order] to save the mother company paperwork and cost." 17

This assault on workers is coupled with a call for less state regulation of business. As a Senator in the Italian Parliament, Benetton has made it clear that he would promote a "lesser State presence in the economy" and apply the logic of business to the larger world of politics. 18 Within this scenario, Benetton's discourse of social justice appears transparently cynical next to its conglomerate building management practices, increasing use of temporary workers at the expense of a full-time, unionized workforce, and aggressive attempts to subordinate all aspects of political and cultural discourse to the logic of capital and commerce. 19

The economic mandates of Benetton's post-Fordism are informed by an underlying ideological imperative: the need to contain potentially antagonistic cultural differences and an insurgent multiculturalism through a representational politics that combines pluralism with a depoliticized appeal to world harmony and peace. This becomes more clear by recognizing that the politics of difference a la Benetton intersects diverse vectors of representation. Economically, the company's post-Fordist organizational structure acknowledges cultural difference as a vehicle for expanding its range of markets and goods; diversity in the commercial sense entails a move away from standardized markets and the intrusion of business into the postmodern world of plural identities. The representation of difference becomes a crucial component in a market-driven attempt to expand production of a variety of apparel for vastly different individuals, groups, and markets. Benetton's corporate ideology, therefore, bespeaks the need to construct representations that affirm differences, but at the same time deny their radical possibilities within a corporate ideology that speaks to global concerns. Difference in this sense poses the postmodern problem of maintaining the particularity of diverse groups while simultaneously unifying such differences within Benetton's concept of a "world without borders."

Benetton addresses this problem in both pedagogical and political terms. Pedagogically, it takes up the issue of difference through representations based on the conventions of fashion, style, and spectacle. Adapting its widely circulated magazine Colors to an MTV format, it uses the journal to focus on transnational topics such as music, sex, birth control, and a wide range of issues incorporating popular culture while simultaneously depoliticizing it. Popular culture, in this case, becomes the pedagogical vehicle through which Benetton addresses the everyday concerns of youth while at the same time blurring the lines between popular cultures of resistance and the culture of commerce and commercialization. Interspersed amid commentaries on music, pizza, national styles, condoms, rock stars, and the biographies of various Benetton executives, Colors parades young people from various racial and ethnic groups wearing Benetton apparel. In this context, difference is stripped of all social and political antagonisms and becomes a commercial symbol for what is youthfully chic, hip, and fashionable. At the same time, Colors appears to take its cue from the many concerns that inform the daily lives of teenagers all over the industrialized world.

Politically, Benetton develops a strategy of containment through advertising practices using journalistic photos that address consumers through stylized representations whose structuring principles are shock, sensationalism, and voyeurism. In these images, Benetton's motives are less concerned with selling particular products than with offering its publicity mechanisms to diverse cultures as a unifying discourse for solving the great number of social problems that threaten to uproot difference from the discourses of harmony, consensus, and fashion.

Representations of Hopelessness

Many people have asked why we didn't include a text that would explain the image. But we preferred not to because we think the image is understandable by itself. 20

I think to die is to die. This is a human situation, a human condition....But we know this death happened. This is the real thing, and the more real the thing is, the less people want to see it. It's always intrigued me why fake has been accepted and reality has been rejected. At Benetton, we are trying to create an awareness of issues. AIDS is one of today's major modern problems in the world, so I think we have to show something about it. 21

In defense of the commercial use of sensational, journalistic pho­tographs that include the aforementioned dying AIDS patient, a terrorist car bombing, and a black soldier with a gun strapped over his shoulder holding part of the skeletal remains of another human being, Benetton's spokespeople combine an assertion of universal values and experiences with the politics of realism. Arguing that such images serve as a vehicle for social change by calling attention to the real world, Benetton suggests that its advertising campaign is informed by a representational politics in which the "truth" of such images is guaranteed by their purchase on reality. From this perspective, "shocking" photos register rather than engage an alleged unmediated notion of the truth. This appeal to the unmediated "truth-effects" of photographic imagery is coupled with a claim to universal truths ("to die is to die") that serve to deny the historical, social, and political specificity of particular events. Ideologically, this suggests that the value of Benetton's photos reside in their self-referentiality, that is, their ability to reflect both the unique vision of the sponsor and their validation of a certain construction of reality. Suppressed in this discourse is an acknowledgment that the meaning of such photos resides in their functions within particular contexts.

Before discussing specific examples from Benetton's advertising campaign, I want to comment briefly on some of the structuring devices at work in the use of the photojournalistic images. All of Benetton's ads depend upon a double movement between decontextualization and recontextualization. To accomplish the former move, the photos militate against a reading in which the context and content of the photo is historically and culturally situated. Overdetermined by the immediacy of the logic of the spectacle, Benetton's photos become suspended in what Stuart Ewen has called "memories of style." 22 That is, by dehistoricizing and decontextualizing the photos, Benetton attempts to render ideology innocent by blurring the conditions of production, circulation, and commodification that present such photos as unproblematically real and true. By denying specificity, Benetton suppresses the history of these images and, in doing so, limits the range of meanings that might be brought into play. At stake here is a denial of how shifting contexts give an image different meanings. Of course, the depoliticization that is at work here is not innocent. By failing to rupture the dominant ideological codes (i.e., racism, colonialism, sexism), which structure what I call Benetton's use of hyperventilating realism (a realism of sensationalism, shock, and spectacle), the ads simply register rather than challenge the dominant social relations reproduced in the photographs.

The viewer is afforded no sense of how the aesthetic of realism works to mask "the codes and structures which give photographs meaning as well as the historical contingencies (e.g., patriarchal structures which normalize notions of looking) which give such codes salience." 23 There is no sense here of how the operations of power inform the construction of social problems depicted in the Benetton ads, nor is there any recognition of the diverse struggles of resistance which attempt to challenge such problems. Within this aestheticization of politics, spectacle foregrounds our fascination with the hyperreal and positions the viewer within a visual moment that simply registers horror and shock without critically responding to it. Roland Barthes has referred to this form of representation as one that positions the viewer within the "immediacy of translation." 24 According to Barthes, this is a form of representational politics that functions as myth, because

it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions because it is without depth, a world wide open and wallowing in the evident, it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves. 25

Isolated from historical and social contexts, Benetton's images are stripped of their political possibilities and reduced to a spectacle of fascination, horror, and terror that appears to primarily privatize the viewer's response to social events. That is, the form of address both reproduces dominant renderings of the image and translates the possibility of agency to the privatized act of buying goods rather than engaging forms of self and social determination. This process and its effects becomes clear in analyzing the ad in which AIDS patient David Kirby is portrayed on his deathbed surrounded by members of his grieving family.

As I noted above, this image involves a double movement. On the one hand, it suppresses the diverse lifestyles, struggles, and realities of individuals in various stages of living with AIDS. In doing so, the Kirby image reinforces dominant representations of people with AIDS, reproducing what Douglas Crimp, in another context, refers to as "what we have already been told or shown about people with AIDS: that they are ravaged, disfigured, and debilitated by the syndrome [and that] they are generally...desperate, but resigned to their inevitable deaths." 26 The appeal to an aesthetic of realism does little to disturb the social and ideological force of such inherited dominant representations. On the contrary, by not providing an analysis of representations of AIDS as a de | facto death sentence, relying instead on the clichés enforced through; dominant images and their social effects, the Benetton ad reproduces rather than challenges conventional representations that portray people with AIDS as helpless victims.

The politics at work in the Benetton photographs is also strikingly revealed in its use of photojournalistic images that are decontextualized from any meaningful historical and social context and then recontextualized through the addition of the United Colors of Benetton logo. In the first instance, the logo produces a representational "zone of comfort" confirming a playfulness which allows the viewer to displace any ethical or political understanding of the images contained in the Benetton ads. The logo serves largely to position the audience within a combination of realism and amusement. Public truths revealed in Benetton's images, regardless of how horrifying or threatening, are offered "as a kind of joke in which the reader is invited to participate (the 'joke' is how low can we go?), but its potential dangers are also pretty clear: today aliens from Mars kidnap joggers, yesterday Auschwitz didn't happen, tomorrow who cares what happens." 27 Of course, the "joke" here is that anything is for sale and social commitment is just another gimmick for selling goods. In this type of representational politics, critical engagement is rendered ineffective by turning the photo and its political referent into an advertisement. If the possibility of social criticism is suggested by the ad, this is quickly dispelled by the insertion of the logo, which suggests that any complicity between the viewer and the event it depicts is merely ironic. The image ultimately references nothing more than a safe space where the logic of the commodity and the marketplace mobilize consumers' desires rather than struggles over social injustices and conflicts. In the case of the AIDS ad, the use of the Benetton logo juxtaposes human suffering and promotional culture so as to invite the viewer to position him or herself between the playfulness of commodification and an image of apocalypse rendering social change either ironic or unimaginable. This serves less to situate a critical viewer who can mediate social reality and its attendant problems than to subordinate this viewer to the demands and aesthetic of commerce. One consequence of such a position has been captured by Stuart Ewen: "By reducing all social issues to matters of perception, it is on the perceptual level that social issues are addressed. Instead of social change, there is image change. Brief shows of flexibility at the surface mask intransigence at the core." 28

In the second instance, recontextualization appeals to an indeterminacy which suggests that such images can be negotiated by different individuals in multiple and varied ways. Hence, Benetton's claim that such photos generate diverse interpretations. While such an assumption rightly suggests that viewers always mediate and rewrite images in ways that differ from particular ideologies and histories, when unqualified it also overlooks how specific contexts privilege some readings over others. In other words, while individuals produce rather than merely receive meanings, the choices they make and the meanings they produce are not free-floating. Such meanings and mediations are, in part, formed within wider social and cultural determinations that propose a range of reading practices privileged within hierarchical relations of power. The reading of any text cannot be understood independency of the historical and social experiences which construct how audiences interpret other texts.

It is this notion of reading formation that is totally missing from Benetton's defense of its endless images of death, pain, danger, and shock. Tony Bennett is helpful on this issue.

The concept of reading an attempt to think context as a set of discursive and inter-textual determinations, operating on material and institutional supports, which bear in upon a text not just externally, from the outside in, but internally, shaping it in the historically concrete forms in which it is available as a text to be read from the inside out. 29

This point can be illustrated by examining two of Benetton's racially marked ads. The first depicts a black woman and a white baby. The second portrays two hands, one black, one white, handcuffed together. In the former ad, the viewer is presented with the torso of a robust black woman suckling a white baby. A crimson cableknit cardigan is pulled down over her shoulders to reveal her breasts. Her hands reveal traces of scar tissue, and her nails are trimmed short. This is not a traditional Benetton model.

Oliviero Toscani for United Colors of Benetton

How might one decipher these potent, overdetermined set of signifiers? I say overdetermined in the double sense. First, the racial coding of the image is so overdetermined that it is difficult to imagine that this black women nursing a long, pale pink baby is the child's mother. Given the legacy of colonialism and racism that informs this image, I also believe that the photo privileges a range of dominant readings that suggest the ingrained racial stereotype of the black/slave/wet nurse or mammy. 30 Other than the logo, there are no signifiers in this photo which would threaten or rupture such an imperialist coding. It is precisely the absence of referents of resistance, rupture, and critique that allows the reader to be perfectly comfortable with such a configuration of race and class while at the same time accepting the image as nothing more than a "playful" ad .

In the second ad, there is a calculated and false equality at work in the image of black and white hands handcuffed together. Is the viewer in the United States, England, France, or South Africa to believe that the black hand is the signifier of law, order, and justice? Or, given the legacy of white racism in all of these countries, is it more probable that the image, at least at the level of the unconscious, reproduces the racist assumption that social issues regarding crime, turmoil, and lawlessness are essentially a black problem? Restaging race relations in these terms exploits the racially charged tensions that underlie current racial formations in the Western industrial countries while simultaneously reducing the historical legacy of white supremacy to a representation of mere equality or symmetry. The emotionally charged landscape of race relations, in this instance, becomes another example of how social problems become "packaged" in order to "reinject the real into our lives as spectacle." 31

Conclusion: Pedagogy and the Need for Critical Public Cultures

The new postmodern pedagogy of mass advertising poses a central challenge to the role cultural workers might play in deepening their politics through a broader understanding of how knowledge is produced, identities shaped, and values articulated as a pedagogical practice that takes place in multiple sites outside the traditional institution of schooling. The struggle over meaning is no longer one that can be confined to programs in educational institutions and their curricula. Moreover, the struggle over identity can no longer be seriously considered outside the politics of representation and the new formations of consumption. Culture is increasingly constituted by commerce, and the penetration of commodity culture into every facet of daily life has become the major axis of relations of exchange through which corporations actively produce new, increasingly effective forms of address.

There is more at stake here than advertising and commerce combining in the postmodern age to commodify through the ritualization of fashion that which has previously escaped its reach. More importantly, mass advertising has become the site of a representational politics that powerfully challenges our understanding of what constitutes pedagogy, the sites in which it takes place, and who speaks under what conditions through its authorizing agency. With the emergence of advertising as a global enterprise, we are witnessing a new form of violence against the public. By this I do not mean simply the intrusion of violence into designated public spheres as much as I am suggesting a "public whose essential predicate would be violence." 32 At the core of this violence are constituting principles that accentuate individualism and difference as central elements of the marketplace. Underlying this violence of the public is a notion of the social bereft of ethics, social justice, and any viable notion of democratic public cultures. Put another way, mass advertising and its underlying corporate interests represent a new stage in an effort to abstract the notion of the public from the language of ethics, history, and democratic community.

The rearticulation and new intersection of advertising and commerce, on the one hand, and politics and representational pedagogy on the other, can be seen in the emergence of Benetton as one of the leading manufacturers and retailers of contemporary clothing. Benetton is important not only because of its marketing success, but also because it has taken a bold stance in attempting to use advertising as a forum to address highly charged social and political issues. Through its public statements and advertising campaigns, Benetton has brought a dangerously new dimension to corporate appropriation as a staple of postmodern aesthetics. Inviting the penetration of aesthetics into everyday life, Benetton has utilized less deterministic and more flexible approaches to design, technology, and styling. Such postmodern approaches to marketing and layout privilege contingency, plurality, and the poetics of the photographic image in an attempt to rewrite the relationship among aesthetics, commerce, and politics. Instead of depoliticizing or erasing images that vividly and, in some cases, shockingly depict social and political events, Benetton has attempted to redefine the link between commerce and politics by emphasizing both the politics of representation and the representation of politics. In the first instance, Benetton has appropriated for its advertising campaign actual news photos of social events that portray various calamities of the time. These include pictures of a duck covered with thick oil, a bloodied Mafia murder victim, depictions of child labor, and a terrorist car bombing. As part of a representation of politics, Benetton struggles to reposition itself less as a producer of commodities and market retailer than as a corporate voice for a particular definition of public morality, consensus, coherence, and community. This has been more recently revealed in an advertisement campaign which depicts Senator Luciano Benetton posing nude. The accompanying text urging people of wealth to give away their "old" clothes to charity. Benetton justifies the ad by arguing that "business has to go on for everybody. Rich people should buy new stuff and be pleased that others can profit from [their old clothes]." 33 Justice in this case is appropriated less to regulate the production of consumerism than to legitimate it.

This is not to suggest that the politics of consumption in its various circuits of power constitutes an unadulterated form of domination. Such a view is often more monolithically defensive than dialectical and less interested in understanding the complex process by which people desire, choose, and act in everyday life than with shielding the guardians of high modernism, who have always despised popular culture for its vulgarity and association with the "masses." 34 What is at stake in the new intersection of commerce, advertising, and consumption is the very definition and survival of critical public cultures. I am referring here to those public spaces predicated on the multiplication of spheres of daily life where people can debate the meaning and consequences of public truths, inject a notion of moral responsibility into representational practices, and collectively struggle to change dominating relations of power. Central to my argument has been the assumption that these new forms of advertising and consumption do not deny politics, they simply appropriate it. This is a politics that "actively creates one version of the social," one that exists in harmony with market ideologies and initiatives. 35 Such a politics offers no resistance to a version of the social as largely a "democracy of images," a public media extravaganza in which politics is defined largely through the "consuming of images." 36

Cultural workers need to reformulate the concept of resistance usually associated with these forms of colonization. Such a formulation has to begin with an analysis of how a postmodern pedagogy works by problematizing the intersection of power and representation in an ever-expanding democratization of images and culture. Representations in the postmodern world reach deeply into daily life, contributing to the increasing fragmentation and decentering of individual and collective subjects. Not only are the old categories of race, gender, sexuality, age, and class increasingly rewritten in highly differentiating and often divisive terms, but the space of the social is further destabilized through niche marketing which constructs identities around lifestyles, ethnicity, fashion, and a host of other commodified subject positions. Central here is the issue of how power has become an important cultural and ideological form, particularly within the discourse of difference and popular culture. Cultural workers need a new map for registering and understanding how power works to inscribe desires and identities and create multiple points of antagonism and struggle. Also in serious need of consideration is the creation of a new kind of pedagogical politics and pedagogy, organized through guiding narratives that link global and local social contexts, provide new articulations for engaging popular culture within rather than outside new technologies and regimes of representation, and offer a moral language for expanding the struggle over democracy and citizenship to ever-widening spheres of daily life.

Clearly, more is at issue here than understanding how representations work to construct their own systems of meaning, social organizations, and cultural identifications. In part, cultural workers must investigate the new politics of commerce not merely as an economic issue, that is, as symptomatic of the new configurations of a post-Fordist world, but as a reaction to the emergence and "assertion of new ethnicities, problems of racism, problems of nationality, of law, of discrimination, and the assertion of particular communities." 37 Furthermore, this suggests reformulation of a politics and pedagogy of difference around an ethical discourse that challenges the ideological grounds and representations of commerce, but at the same time limits those public spheres it attempts to appropriate. If a politics of difference is to be linked not merely to registering "otherness," but identifying the conditions through which others become critical agents, the ethic of consumerism must be challenged by exposing its limits.

Cultural workers need to take up the challenge of teaching ourselves, students, and others to acknowledge our and their complicity in the discourse and practice of consumerism while at the same time bringing the hope mobilized by such practices to a principled and persistent crisis. This is not to invoke a vulgar critique of the real pleasures of buying nor to underestimate the diverse ways in which people negotiate the terrain of the market or reappropriate goods through resisting and oppositional practices. Rather these conditions require recognition of the political and pedagogical limits of consumerism, its often active involvement in creating new identities, and its ongoing assault on the notion of insurgent differences in a multicultural and multiracial democracy. Individual and collective agency is about more than buying goods, and social life in its most principled forms points beyond the logic of the market as a guiding principle. It is up to cultural workers and other progressive educators to address this challenge directly as part of a postmodern political and pedagogical challenge.


I would like to thank Carol Becker for encouraging me to write this article, Roger Simon and Harvey Kaye for their support and advice, and Peter McLaren for his editorial help. I would also like to thank Michael Hoechsmann for letting me read an early draft of a paper he is writing on Benetton pedagogy.

back to reference 1. Michael Stevens, "Change the World, Buy a Sweater," Chicago Tribune (December 11, 1992), 33.

back to reference 2. Benetton, Spring/Summer 1992 Advertising Campaign copy, 4.

back to reference 3. Carol Squiers, "Violence at Benetton," Artforum (May 1992): 18-19.

back to reference 4. On the issue of promotional culture, an excellent text is Andrew Warnick, Promotional Culture (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1991).

back to reference 5. Noreen O'Leary, "Benetton's True Colors," Adweek (August 24, 1992), 28.

back to reference 6. Benetton is not only publishing, with Ginko Press, a book entitled United Colors of Benetton, which "vividly displays the Benetton corporate philosophy," it is also publishing a book in 1994 entitled, What's the Relationship between AIDS and Selling a Sweater 1 ?, which chronicles various responses to the con­troversial Benetton ads. Both books appropriate the controversy over Benetton's ads in order to spread the company's name and generate profits. It seems that nothing is capable of existing outside of Benetton's high powered commercialism and drive for profits. Spike Lee is one of the most high profile celebrities to endorse Benetton's campaign. See the interview ~~ with Spike Lee, which was sponsored as an advertisement in "United Colors of Benetton," in Rolling Stone no. 643 (November 12, 1992): 1-5.

back to reference 7. Ingrid Sischy, "Advertising Taboos: Talking to Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani," Interview (April 1992): 69.

back to reference 8. Quoted in Carol Squiers, "Violence at Benetton," 18.

back to reference 9. Benetton, Spring/Summer 1992 Advertising Campaign copy, 2.

back to reference 10. Andrew Warnick, Promotional Culture, 181.

back to reference 11. Cited in Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 247.

back to reference 12. Benetton, Fall/Winter 1992 Advertising Campaign Literature, 2.

back to reference 13. Ingrid Sischy, "Advertising Taboos," 69.

back to reference 14. Cited in Martin Davidson, The Consumerist Manifesto (New York: Routledge, 1992), 199.

back to reference 15. Stuart Hall, "The Meaning of New Times," in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, eds., New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s (London: Verso Press, 1990), 117.

back to reference 16. Stuart Hall, "Brave New World," Socialist Review 91, no. 1 (January-March 1991): 57-58.

back to reference 17. Clare Ansberry, "Workers are Forced to Take More and More Jobs with Fewer Benefits," The Wall Street Journal 84, no. 103 (March 11, 1993), 1. See also Robin Murray, "Benetton Britain: The New Economic Order," in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, New Times, 54-64.

back to reference 18. Interview with Luciano Benetton in "News," an insert in Colors no. 3 (Fall/Winter 1992-93), 2.

back to reference 19. For a succinct analysis of the relationship between post-Fordism and capi­talism, see David Harvey, "Flexibility: Threat or Opportunity?," Socialist Review 9l no. 1 (January-March 1991): 65-75.

back to reference 20. Luciano Benetton, quoted in Ingrid Sischy, "Advertising Taboos," 69.

back to reference 21. Oliviero Toscani, quoted in Ingrid Sischy, "Advertising Taboos," 69.

back to reference 22. Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images, 248.

back to reference 23. Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Photography at the Dock (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 145.

back to reference 24. Roland Barthes, "Shock-Photos," in The Eiffel Tower (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979), 72.

back to reference 25. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Noonday, 1972), 143.

back to reference 26. Douglas Crimp, "Portraits of People with AIDS," in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg et al (New York: Routledge, 1992), 118.

back to reference 27. Dick Hebdige, "After the Masses," in Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, New Times, 83.

back to reference 28. Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images, 264.

back to reference 29. Tony Bennett, "Texts in History: The Determinations of Readings and Their Texts," in Post structuralism and the Question of History, ed. Derek Atridge et. al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 72.

back to reference 30. This issue of the legacy of racial representations and their affect on shap­ing cultural practices is analyzed in K. Sue Jewell, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond (New York: Routledge, 1993).

back to reference 31. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1985), 6-7.

back to reference 32. Andrew Payne and Tom Taylor, "Introduction: The Violence of the Public," Public no. 6(1992): 10.

back to reference 33. Sharon Waxman, "Benetton Laid Bare," Miami Herald February 8, 1993, Cl.

back to reference 34. On the dialectics of consumerism, see Mike Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1991), and Mica Nava, Changing Cultures: Feminism, Youth and Consumerism (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992).

back to reference 35. Dick Hebdige, After the Masses, 89.

back to reference 36. I have taken this idea from the transcript of the television show, The Public Mind with Bill Moyers (New York: WNET Public Affairs Television, 1989), 14.

back to reference 37. David Bennet and Terry Collits, "Homi Bhabha Interviewed by David Bennet and Terry Collits—The Postcolonial Critic," Arena no. 96 (Spring 1991): 47-48.