German Court Bans Shocking Benetton Ads : Law: Panel labels as ‘immoral’ the clothier’s campaigns on HIV, oil slicks and child laborers.


Opponents of Benetton’s controversial “shock advertising” campaign won a round Thursday, when a German appeals court ruled that three of the Italian clothing company’s commercial images could not be published in this country.

The Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe upheld a lower court ruling that Benetton Group’s pictures of a waterfowl stuck in an oil slick, a human body stamped “HIV-positive” and child laborers in the Third World--all bearing the slogan, “United Colors of Benetton"--exploit human suffering and therefore constitute unfair competition.

“Benetton is trying, through its depiction of the intense suffering of living things, to evoke a feeling of compassion on the part of the consumer, and to suggest that it is sympathetic,” the court wrote. “In this way, Benetton tries to enhance its name and its business in the mind of the consumer.”

The court said that using such intense emotional appeals to sell products is “immoral,” adding that the picture of the patient with the virus that leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, in particular “strips HIV-positive people of their dignity.”


From Italy, Benetton spokeswoman Marina Galanti said that the clothing company’s lawyers are considering whether to appeal to Germany’s specialized Constitutional Court, because the firm believes that important issues of corporate free speech are at stake. She argued that the very nature of advertising is to make intense emotional appeals. Other companies “just use different emotions--greed, lust, whatever,” she said.

Galanti added that Benetton will modify its ad images in the fall but said the changes have nothing to do with public pressure; the company hopes to go on pushing the boundaries of conventional advertising.

“The idea behind our advertising works,” Galanti said. The fall ad campaign will drop Benetton’s emotion-laden photographs of hardships around the world, she said, and start using dramatic artwork created by international students at a new communications school that the clothing company is launching in Italy.

The three photos banned in Thursday’s decision appeared in Germany in 1992 and 1993, when Benetton launched what it calls its “current affairs cycle” of advertising. The ads were designed to sell clothes by calling attention to a range of international issues, replacing a narrower series in which the company sought to sell clothing by highlighting racial intolerance.


The “current affairs” photographs--which also include a much-criticized picture of a dead Croatian soldier’s blood-soaked uniform--have been controversial in many countries, including France, where a government minister went so far as to urge critics “to pull [Benetton sweaters] off people” in protest.


In Germany, opposition to the ads has been led primarily by storekeepers and business associations. Aside from Thursday’s case, a number of Benetton outlets have banded together here and refused to pay the Italian company for merchandise shipments, arguing that customers are offended by the photos and are boycotting Benetton stores, causing owners to lose money.

Benetton has taken about a dozen non-paying German storekeepers to court. So far, judges had been accepting Benetton’s arguments that the stores’ financial losses stemmed not from the shocking ads and negative consumer reaction but from the recent German recession.


The case decided Thursday was filed not by disgruntled shopkeepers but by a nonprofit advertising watchdog group, the Center Against Unfair Competition. The group receives about 20,000 complaints a year about improper advertising, most of them routine gripes about companies misrepresenting products.