Benetton Ads

Topics: Oliviero Toscani, Gender, Race Pages: 24 (9016 words) Published: September 17, 2010
Young People, Researchers and Benetton
Contest Interpretations of a Benetton Advertisement Picture

In the spring of 1997, four Benetton advertisements were placed in front of Finnish candidates for the matriculation examination. One portrayed a nun and a priest kissing, another featured a black wolf and a white lamb, a third one was a picture of multi-coloured condoms lined up in straight rows, and a fourth portrayed a “family of the future”, two adults with a child in between them wrapped in a green blanket.1 The pictures were a part of that year’s examination in the Finnish language as a mother tongue in which the young people were asked to write an essay with a title of their own on the basis of the material distributed to them 2 . The subject was eagerly seized upon by the students. Thousands of essays were written, and the students added their own opinions to the Benetton debate that has churned for years in the public realm. However, their interpretations were to be assessed only by their own teacher and the matriculation examination board – that is, until this article was written. Perhaps Benetton as a phenomenon has been too trendy for sociologists or researchers in the field of communication studies to have the nerve to show an interest in the subject. Searching through the databases of social sciences (September 1998) results in only a few texts that deal with Benetton. The most central of these are “Dream Utopias, Nightmare Realities” (1993) by Les Back and Vibeke Quaade, “Consuming Social Change” (1994) by Henry A. Giroux, and “Images of Planetary Danger” (1994) by Michael Shapiro. Sociologist Pasi Falk has also written about Benetton. His article “The Benetton-Toscani Effect: Testing the Limits of Conventional Advertising” was published in 1997. In Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Tampere, FIN-33014 University of Tampere,

the field of communication studies, Serra A. Tinic’s “United Colors and United Meanings: Benetton and the Commodification of Social Issues” that was published in the Journal of Communication in 1997 stands out. There are three things that are common to all of these texts. Firstly, they attempt to critically assess the meaning world of Benetton pictures and/or join it as part of other culture: advertisement and pictorial representation of race or globalisation. Another quality, the primary one where this article is concerned, is that the articles rely on so-called textual interpretations. In this case, the researcher interprets the meanings of the Benetton adverts and campaigns in the light of his/her own theoretical knowledge, in a historically limited cultural state which can be termed scientific discourse. The third common feature springs from the fact that not one of these articles consider what the above-mentioned factor possibly means in regard to the interpretations. The much-debated reflexivity therefore does not seem to reach the field of scientific work, in so far as reflexivity is understood as self-reflexivity; namely, consideration of the grounds and discursive state of one’s own interpretations. In this article, I actually only deal with one question: what is the relationship of the researcher’s interpretation to the interpretations of the pictures by the young people? It is significant to find an answer to this question, because in the field of social scientifically-oriented photography research, little research is conducted on the reception of an image. In Finland, an exception is Pauliina Arva’s work Pictures and Images of Health Education (1991), in which she illuminates the reception of health education. If the matter is looked at from the broader horizon of communications research, the reception of different media texts has already been long researched. However,


to my knowledge even in this area no comparative situation has been set up between researcher and layman interpretations of the same media...

References: Aarva, Pauliina (1991) Terveysvalistuksen kuvia ja mielikuvia. (Pictures and Images of Health Education) Acta Universitatis Tamperensis. Ser A; vol. 328. Tampere: University of Tampere. Back, Les and Quaade, Vibeke (1993) Dream Utopias, Nightmare Realities. Imagining Race and Culture within the World of Benetton Advertising. Third Text 22(1993), 65-80. Butler, Judith (1990) Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies That Matter. On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge. Devor, Holly (1989) Gender Blending. Confronting the Limits of Duality. Bloomington (Ind.): Indiana University Press. Falk, Pasi (1997) The Benetton-Toscani Effect: Testing the Limits of Conventional Advertising. In Mica Nava, Andrew Blake, Iain MacRury and Barry Richards (eds.) Buy This Book. Studies in Advertising and Consumption. London: Routledge, pp. 64-83. Giroux, Henri A. (1994) Consuming Social Change: The United Colors of Benetton. In Henri A. Giroux: Disturbing Pleasures. New York: Routledge. pp. 5-24. Hall, Stuart (ed.) (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage. Shapiro, Michael (1996) Images of Planetary Danger – Luciano Benetton’s Ecumenical Fantasy. In Tuija Parvikko and Jukka Kanerva (eds.) Exploring the Chronospace of Images. Jyväskylä: University of Jyväskylä, pp. 9-33. Tinic, Serra A. (1997) United Colors and United Meanings: Benetton and the Commodification of Social Issues. Journal of Communication 47(1997):3, pp. 3-25.
Translation: Aijaleena Ahonen and Kris Clarke
Published earlier in Tiedotustutkimus 23(2000)2: pp. 20-35. 96
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