Het Parool – Benetton Advertisement – 1991
Monday evening, 9 o’clock. We search the city for billboards featuring the new commercial expression of the fashion brand Benetton. When we find one, we take out our spray cans and modify the poster according to a fixed concept (see photo).
For this action, we were inspired by songs from the American hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions (BDP). H.E.A.L. stands for Human Education Against Lies, and “Why is that?” addresses false information. The creatively intended advertisement by Benetton (about uniting opposites) may seem innocent at first glance, but from an educational perspective alone, it is at least condemnable. The black character symbolizes the less pleasant side of existence.
Dutch advertisements are overflowing with stereotypes. For example, alcohol commercials often depict white people in the foreground while black people make music in the background (following a fixed pattern). Another example is Spa mineral water, featuring posters of white people with texts about purity, with no people of color in sight. In other words, people of color are not associated with purity. Is it far-fetched?
Perhaps. However, many, including us, see that an album like “Fear Of A Black Planet” by the controversial Hip Hop group Public Enemy is not just about the United States. If we continue to systematically ignore each other’s cultures and feelings, we may expect American-style scenes here as well.
Published in Het Parool 24/09/91
Damsko Magazine – Benetton Advertisement -1991 – By: II TALL & MRK
Preface: Iwan Brave
II TALL and MRK, two students closely following rap music, were bothered by one of the posters (see photo) of the clothing brand Benetton.
Benetton clothing is mainly known for its vibrant colors, which the designers play with. This vibrancy is symbolized by the slogan ‘United Colors.’ Additionally, they choose models of multiracial backgrounds because Benetton particularly enjoys uniting contrasts. Hence, this poster with the angelic girl with blonde locks and the devilish boy with curly hair styled into two horns. Despite Benetton’s good intentions, this stereotyping went too far for II TALL and MRK. They presented their grievances to Het Parool. On September 24th, a shortened version of their submitted piece was published, which prompted a series of interviews and articles. However, II TALL and MRK were not completely satisfied. They believed that the nuances had been omitted. They had more on their minds than just this black-and-white contrast. Therefore, here follows the integral text of their letter.
It is Monday evening at nine o’clock. We search the city for billboards featuring the new commercial expression of the fashion brand Benetton. When we find one, we take out our spray cans and modify the poster according to a fixed recipe: on the face of the lovely white girl with golden locks, we write HEAL in black. The equally beautiful black boy with two horns cut into his hair undergoes the same treatment, but with white letters. Then, to the right of the children, the question appears: WHY IS THAT?
For this action, we were inspired by the American hip-hop group Boogie Down Productions (BDP). In this context, H.E.A.L. stands for Human Education Against Lies, and “Why is that?” expresses opposition to false information about different peoples. Noble texts that, for the umpteenth time, seem to have no effect. How is it possible that in a supposedly tolerant country like the Netherlands, so many standard mistakes are made (and tolerated) in the realm of stereotypes? How does a concept creator – especially from United Colors – dare to mess around with skin colors to such an incredible extent? How can you, in this day and age, portray the black man as a devil and the white woman as an angel? Why is that?
This creatively intended advertisement (about uniting opposites) may seem innocent at first glance but is at least condemnable from an educational perspective alone. It is characteristic that the black character represents the less pleasant side of existence, according to the stereotypes and common use of symbolism that we have uncritically perpetuated for centuries. It is a thorn in the side of those who are more aware of the situation and particularly for those who are hurt by it. The consequences of such contempt are evident in the United States and South Africa.
While we may have a different history, if we do not remain vigilant, within a few years, we can expect ghetto formation, a major right-wing party, increased crime and misery, and an unpleasant living climate here as well. This will partly be thanks to the media, which continue to cherish stereotype expressions from the 1990s. Dutch advertising messages are overflowing with stereotypes. For example, alcohol commercials often depict white people in the lead roles while black people make music in the background following a fixed pattern. Another example is Spa mineral water: posters featuring white people with texts about purity, with no people of color to be seen.
In other words, people of color are not associated with purity. Is it far-fetched? Perhaps. But many, including us, see that an album like ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ by the controversial Hip Hop group Public Enemy applies not only to the United States. The title track addresses one of the erroneous provisions in the American constitution, stating that only the blood of white men is pure, while the blood of people of color (full or mixed) is impure. Fortunately, such filth does not appear in our legal code.
However, we must not think that everything is fine here or that we can leave the overall issue at the individual level. If we stop systematically ignoring each other’s cultures and feelings, we can prevent American scenes from happening in our ‘welcoming’ Netherlands. It starts with rejecting images of angelic blonde girls and demonic black boys. Furthermore, it raises questions that in the Netherlands, in 1991, posters from 1989 (!) resurfaced, which, according to reports, were put away again in other parts of Europe after protests. Why is that? In Fear Of A Black Planet?
Shortened version published in Het Parool: 24/09/91
N.B. The Advertising Code Committee, the body responsible for reviewing the content of advertisements, condemned this advertisement as ‘contrary to good taste,’ which is the most severe disapproval from this committee.
Published in Damsko Magazine 1991
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