Un-Benetton blog - why did we write it?

Thu, 04/10/2012 - 00:03 -- nick

Last week we blogged on the new Benetton advertising campaign, ‘Unemployee of the year’, and questioned its contribution to the unemployed people it targets and depicts. The blog attracted some attention, both positive and negative, so we thought it was worth writing on the subject again to explain why we were so critical of the company.

The main issue put to us was based in the belief that any company putting real money into helping communities and individuals to overcome the problems of unemployment is worthy of praise.

Chairman Alessandro Benetton seems to think his company is due some credit for this, saying ‘he hoped people would be surprised to see the company spending money to promote “values in which we believe.”’ (as quoted in the New York Times). Having been criticised previously for showing controversial images, including a man dying of AIDS in a hospital bed, but doing nothing to help, it is understandable that they wanted to correct this.

But perhaps the idea that the public’s perception needed addressing more than the substance of the thing was too prevalent in their minds. The main reason why we were sceptical was to be found in the finances of the campaign. As we said in the original blog, Benetton have set aside a budget of around 20 million Euros for advertising, while spending only 500,000 Euros on the awards to unemployed people.

40 times more money spent on telling us about the thing than on the thing itself. If you were willing to spend 40 times more on one thing than another it is usually because the expensive thing is most important to you; a private sector company does not spend money unthinkingly, and we must assume that Benetton is 40 times more interested in its customers and potential customers thinking of it as a socially responsible company than it is in being a socially responsible company.

The other reason why the blog was questioned was that the campaign, in showing images of attractive unemployed people who were well dressed and ambitious, contributes to improving the image of a group that really needs better PR.

There is some merit to this idea. Unemployed people can be easy to exploit, partly because they do not have effective group representation (this is one of the main reasons why we started the site). But another key issue is that most are trying to move through this state as quickly as possible, not wanting to identify as part of the group, and this makes creating a sense of ownership of unemployment among unemployed people very difficult.

You can see the results of this everywhere; in the set up of the Work Programme, with the government setting no minimum requirements for participant feedback, recommendations or evaluation; in the lack of consultation of unemployed people when new services are being set up for them; and with widespread media insults and mis-representation.

Positive images of unemployed people help to redress the balance, and an understanding that they want to work helps to promote a better image to others and self-image among unemployed people themselves, highly valuable contributions in the current hostile climate. But the point still stands; if Benetton had decided to share the money they made available for this campaign more equally between marketing and unemployed people, they could have had the support of all of us. Instead, the mismatch between the aims they state and the money they will award means they cannot be worthy of praise or credit.