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Benetton Sowed Some Bad Seeds

magazinesFor all of the magazines I read, I have yet to see any of the newest Benetton ads–outside of the images reproduced in news reports. I’ll probably never get the chance to see Elian Gonzalez turn capitalist in an AltaVista campaign because it was a mere flicker of an unrealized concept. As for Nuveen, I didn’t catch the original screening of the Reeve spot, which was scheduled for only four airings, but I saw multiple rebroadcasts in news reports. Chances are, you are equally familar with these examples, whether or not you’ve actually seen the commercials or know anyone on the agency or account side. It’s beyond irony that while the media lambaste such advertisers for exploiting current events, those very same journalists play into their hands by offering unpaid column inches and air time, instilling a credibility to often laughable image advertising.

Are we talking here about exploitation of compelling human issues and events to sell Italian sweaters, online portals, and investment services? Sure. Is this shrewd manipulation intended to grab more attention for marketers than their media budgets could buy? Most certainly. But as self-righteous journalists continue to chastise marketers for their cynical use of social commentary, you have to wonder how this is any different from what media organizations practice themselves. Elian Gonzalez’s picture could easily be the same one used to sell copies of Time and Newsweek. In the case of image advertising, the only difference is that the magazine’s logo would be replaced by a different, corporate logo. It’s much the same on TV, only more blatant. On NBC‘s “Today” show, for instance, hosts Katie Couric and Matt Lauer complain, in straight-faced interviews, about the media’s lack of restraint in exploiting tragedy. (These segments always seem to pop up even as that show, and its competitors, create special graphi cs and music to capitalize on coverage of sad events like Princess Diana’s death and funeral.) Cut to commercials and the networks’ spin machinery goes into overdrive. More than a week before “Today”‘s March interview with John and Patsy Ramsey, NBC began heavy on-air promotion and released early excerpts of the programs. Those outtakes, which were essentially advertising for upcoming segments of the five-part ratings grabber, were recycled as “news” in print outlets and on the radio. This being the huckster culture of modern America, the Ramseys, of course, were using the broadcast to hawk their own product–the NBC interview, along with others on ABC’s “20/20” and CNN’s “Larry King Live,” were timed to coincide with the publication of their new book about the murder of their daughter, JonBenet.

I realize the need for networks like NBC to pump up ratings in a national system of free TV, courtesy of advertisers. What I don’t understand is press uproar over advertisers’ exploitation of social issues. Journalists amplify and utilize the same marketing approaches even as they criticize the appropriateness of their existence. Former talk show host Joan Lunden, after leaving “Good Morning, America,” became a spokeswoman for Schering-Plough, promoting the pharmaceutical company’s Claritin allergy remedy. Even at august Time Inc.–we’re not talking fashion books here–longtime Madison Avenue exec Mary Lou Quinlan was brought in to develop strategy for the new magazine Real Simple. Astoundingly, the publication will tell consumers to streamline their life through the acquisition of more stuff.

Not that there’s anything new about that blur between the fourth estate and Madison Avenue. Headline-grabbing personalities have been finding a second career in advertising for some time now. It may have begun with No Excuses jeans and Gary Hart paramour Donna Rice, but it has since become standard operating procedure to turn notoriety, however shabby, into a 30-second TV spot. Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson uses something that doesn’t even belong to her anymore–royal pedigree–to push everything from Ocean Spray cranberry juice to Weight Watchers diet products. (One of her better promotional performances came when Ferguson, on a morning talk show to hype the Weight Watchers cookbook she “wrote,” had difficulty finding the stove’s burner knob during a cooking demonstration.)

Of late, Washington has provided a slew of endorsers. The White House’s most famous former intern, Monica Lewinsky–who, like the duchess, became a target of weight jokes in the media–was hired to be a Jenny Craig spokesperson whose subsequent weight loss, or lack thereof, generated regular headlines in the tabloids. Former presidential candidate Bob Dole has said he was amazed at the response to his ads for marketers like Visa, adding that he had received letters from people who claimed they would have voted for him had they seen that funny, self-deprecating side of his personality before the election. And even before Monicagate, Bill Clinton provided rich fodder for advertisers. In November 1997, Internet search engine Excite broke a satirical print and billboard campaign purporting to analyze Clinton’s handwriting. One of the ads suggested, with a wink, that the handwriting analysis indicated a presidential desire to “buy lingerie for that special someone.” Many of the billboards were still up when the L ewinsky allegations broke the following January.

It would seem like an easy enough formula for advertisers: Attach yourself to a high-profile issue or personality and bask in the free media spotlight trailing them. Still, there are some basic tenets that apply, however compromised the journalistic aspects of such marketing. Kenneth Cole recently jumped on the death row bandwagon, with little notice from journalists. As any media hack could have told the company: Be first, Playing catch-up did little to whet the appetite of a media corps uninterested in second-day controversy.

The question of who, if anyone, has the higher moral ground when it comes to this kind of exploitation is a slippery slope. As society becomes more obsessed with notoriety and controversy, and as media entities seek out the next hot issue to raise ratings or circulations, the phenomenon seems likely to occur with more frequency and with less trepidation. But one can’t help but cringe when personalities such as Lewinsky and Reeve agree to use their celebrity to sell products and services that have little if any connection with their own issues and histories.

As for that most well-known proponent of adjournalism, Benetton continues to insist that the company’s motives are simply to bring attention to the world’s injustices, not to elevate the company’s brand awareness. Consumers remain unconvinced. In a CNN Web site poll, 21 percent of the 11,000 respondents said they thought the death-row pitch was simply a ploy for attention.

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