at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

It’s the sort of small-business success story Ronald Reagan liked to weave into his talks about the “American spirit.” Originally a family business, organized in 1965 near Treviso, Italy, the clothing retailer Benetton now boasts more than 7,000 shops in 100 countries. There’s a store near you: in the 1980s the neon-green Benetton sign became a telltale mark of yuppie colonization. The company’s spare designs, colorful sportswear, and youthful, fashionably dressed staff made their appearances on revitalized thoroughfares and in upscale shopping malls–wherever people with credit cards swarm. Since 1984, fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani has ensured Benetton’s customer flow with one of the most controversial advertising promotions in marketing history. Provocative highlights from recent years of the campaign are now on view at Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography in “Advertising and Social Issues: United Colors of Benetton,” running through January 9.

The exhibition features 35 color prints of images used in the company’s ad campaign from 1989 to the present. Many of the pictures look familiar because we’ve seen them on billboards, in magazine layouts, and on posters in Benetton stores. On loan from the company, the prints range in size from 14 by 22 inches to 18 by 22 inches; they’re set in black mats and hung frame-touching-frame in the museum’s cramped Upper Level Gallery. The only copy the pictures bear is the company’s familiar green and white logo: “United Colors of Benetton.”

The images are not labeled in any way (according to museum staff the necessary information did not accompany the prints), so it’s impossible to tell for sure when they were made and by whom. However, a helpful piece of wall text by museum staffer Karen Burstein helps us a bit with the chronology by sketching the history of the campaign.

In the late 1980s Benetton began publishing photo advertisements that had little to do with its clothing. Instead these glossy, expertly crafted, brilliantly colored pictures appeared to comment on racial issues. In one image three children–black, white, and Asian–gleefully stick out their tongues at the camera, showing that beneath the skin they share the same pink anatomy. In another picture two smiling young people dressed in coal miners’ garb stand arm in arm, the white person’s face covered in a sooty black stuff that mimics vaudeville blackface and a miner’s grime. The message in these pictures is clear: in Benetton’s vision of the world there are no racial divides.

In 1991 the company’s advertising got a bit more controversial. Tapping into the street-smart cachet of activist groups like ACT-UP and Queer Nation, Benetton released an ad featuring an array of brightly colored condoms, unfurled like banners across a white field. With the ad’s release, the company distributed condoms to customers in its retail stores worldwide. An ad featuring a nun and a priest kissing so inflamed the Catholic church that it was blocked from distribution in Italy.

But for all their apparent political brashness, the pictures construct a kind of two-dimensional land of make-believe. The images are flawless, hyperreal in their crystalline clarity. Skin and hair are model-perfect. Clothing, when it appears, is rumpled just so. The professional quality of the photographs is reflected in the heaps of industry awards the ads have received in Austria, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United States. Provocative and pretty, these images strike an ingenious visual bargain: they are wonderful to look at, commanding viewer attention, and they lend their company an aura of political correctness. All of this is achieved photographically, without any explanatory text; Benetton needn’t utter a single controversial word.

The 1992 advertisements were the ones that really got everybody talking. Before that Benetton had produced all of its ads in-house. Made with models in the soft fluorescent whiteness of the studio, the earlier pictures have a netherworld quality that gives viewers the impression they’re glimpsing some fashionable heaven. But for the ’92 campaign Benetton left the studio and purchased temporary copyrights for pictures made by journalistic photographers.

Focusing on the “real world” rather than a fashion-magazine utopia, the 1992 campaign was apparently devoted to portrayals of human disaster. One black-and-white image, originally published in Life magazine, was reincarnated in color for a Benetton ad. It depicts AIDS activist David Kirby near death, surrounded by mourning family members. Another picture features a corpse resting in a trail of blood. A third, vertical image depicts a freight ship teaming with Albanian refugees.

The familiar green and white “United Colors of Benetton” logo is all that identifies these images as advertisements. And they are remarkably effective as such. I first saw the Kirby ad as I flipped through a slick clothing magazine. Scanning the pages nonchalantly, I stopped cold at the Benetton ad.

These pictures grab your attention by posing an odd perceptual riddle. Your mind wants to categorize the photographs as reportage, as news. They are strong, straightforward pictures that seem to provide an account of some event. But there’s no caption, no story. The company logo insists that you read the pictures as advertisements, but they don’t look like ads. How could a picture of an Indian couple wading through waist-high floodwaters be promoting turtlenecks? Or an albino African girl surrounded by her peers? Or child laborers hauling bricks in the heat of the day? Your eye scans the page in search of clues, in search of an appropriate conceptual box. Eventually you turn the page. But the images, and their sponsor, are long remembered.

Regardless of how many sweaters it sells, Benetton has certainly given its name and these recent ambivalent images a prominent place in the popular mind. Everybody has an opinion about them. Many argue that the ads are exploitive–that they spy on people in moments of suffering and then transform our sympathy for them into sales promotion. Others contend that the ads function more like public-service announcements, making the public aware of uncomfortable social issues and perhaps inciting some action.

Benetton creative director Toscani takes the humanitarian tack, claiming that the company has been using its $100 million ad campaign “as a vehicle for social change.” Toscani explained during a recent lecture in Houston that “with all the money and all the power that advertising has, it could do something more interesting than sell products. . . . At Benetton, we are trying to create an awareness of issues.”

But despite the apparent political content of the disaster ads, they’re remarkably shallow. Because we cannot put the pictures into their contexts, they cannot really tell us stories. What’s happened to these people? we ask. Who are they? What’s to be done? It is precisely this ambiguity that makes the photos effective as advertising: we remember them because we’re not quite sure what we’re seeing.

Viewing so many of the advertisements side by side in this show one is reminded of news genres. Like television reporting, these pictures give us brief glimpses of situations but provide little to help us interpret what we see. Like stories in the newspaper, these pictures sandwich the pressing problems portrayed into a rigidly structured format–in between other news bites and alongside valuable ad space. As in Life and National Geographic, where the formal beauty of the photographer’s art often eclipses the horror of what’s being depicted, the Benetton campaign wows us with its cleverness even as we gape at the disasters it portrays.

And as in virtually all mass-media news, it’s difficult to determine whether there’s any “human interest” component beyond good business sense. After all, it’s the job of both news producers and ad executives to ensure that we keep tuning in. With these savvy, sparse, often beautiful pictures, Benetton’s got a lot of folks hooked. Rising sales figures for the company worldwide indicate that the campaign has been effective at selling sweaters. It is still unclear whether sportswear can change the world.

Oliviero Toscani will speak on December 15 at 2 in the West Gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Admission is $5, but museum members and students from area colleges and universities will be admitted free.