Last month saw the end of a 16-day United Nations campaign to galvanize action to end violence against women and girls around the world. In partnership, the United Colors of Benetton produced an ad campaign of its own, aimed at millennials, to help transform violence into beauty.
The 76-second spot depicts a barren desert in which a beautiful woman in orange sits ringed by a half dozen young glowering male models of various ethnicities (including, oddly, a guy who looks like he stepped off the set of the TV series Vikings). To the accompaniment of ominous, atmospheric music, the camera finds a stone at one of the men’s feet, and so we anticipate a stoning, one of the most barbaric punishments ever to spring out of the dark heart of humankind.
Instead, the men begin angrily hurling not stones but flowers at the woman until she is sitting on a carpet of petals. She looks serenely at the camera and the ad proclaims: “End violence against women now!”
The Benetton campaign also features “Facing,” an art project which seeks “to use acid to create, not destroy, beauty.” Every year thousands of women are victimized by incomprehensibly sick acid attacks. The short video shows that the corrosive power of acid can be used not to only deface – literally – a woman, but to etch the image of a beautiful one into metal.
“We have been too much used to seeing violence,” says the creative director behind the “flowers” spot, Eric Ravelo. “Our choice was to show the problem through something that is more emotional, and more beautiful. This is a celebration of the woman, and a stronger emotion than if we showed her bloody, or with a black eye. We chose the flower, not the stone.”
Ravelo told Marketing Daily that the ad is aimed at millennials partly to reinforce the perception of the brand to young people (Benetton’s core customers are 25 years and older), and partly “because this is exactly the kind of change that must start from the young generation to the old generation.”
But Elizabeth Nolan Brown at Reason.com found the spot to be “marketing gone very, very wrong.” She felt that “filming a whimsical, sexualized, dreamlike version of violence against women seems a lot more like trivializing and capitalizing on their misery than making a statement or a difference.”
I confess that my initial reaction was somewhat the same as Brown’s. While raising awareness can’t be a bad thing, it is always only the first step, and too often it’s the only step. I’m very skeptical of solving serious problems through Twitter hashtags, slickly produced commercials, and selfie posturing. These may make people feel virtuous and pro-active, but do they have any real world effect?
Look at the Nigerian girls kidnapped by the insanely brutal Boko Haram. The widespread hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls, shared millions of times on social media, flared brightly for a short period, involving even the First Lady herself. But in the end it accomplished little except to stroke Boko Haram’s collective ego for bringing worldwide awareness to their mission of eradicating western culture in Africa. “A viral hashtag,” as the New Yorker’s Naunihal Singh put it, “is a fever that breaks quickly.”
My first thought was that the Benetton campaign, while striking, would have the same imperceptible impact. But upon reflection, I think the company may be onto something. “We tried a different road,” Ravelo explains. “We have been trying shocking—this time we are trying to reach people with beauty and emotion. This is a new approach for Benetton communication. It is still powerful. That is the way we want to represent women—as beautiful.”
There is limitless beauty in the world, but increasingly today it seems that we have to wade through limitless ugliness to find it. Scowling while holding handwritten hashtag signs may trend for awhile on social media, but what may really touch people in unexpected ways and bring a new perspective to the issue of violence against women is turning the ugliness into beauty.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/9/15)