In 1992, the photo of David Kirby and his family was edited from black and white to color to be included in an advertisement for United Colors of Benetton. The ad sparked major controversy.
United Colors of Benetton is an Italian clothing company known for incredibly controversial advertisements. In 1989 the company began using adverts to promote “multicultural harmony,” and in 1991 they started using more “overtly political images” (Lester).
One advert included a photo of crosses in a cemetery. This advert was banned in Italy, France, Britain and Germany (Lester). Another Benetton advert features a nun and priest kissing on the lips, which infuriated the Catholic Church (Lester.)
In recent years, Benetton has released adverts of world leaders kissing on the lips, including President Obama and Hugo Chavez, as part of their “unhate” campaign.
Benetton’s creative director, Toscani, utilized “disturbing images without context or explanation” for more controversial ads (Lester). These included a woman sobbing over a bloody body of a Mafia victim, a mercenary soldier holding up high a bone of a human, a duck covered in oil after a spill and South American children working as laborers (Lester).
Finally, Benetton used Therese Frare’s photo of David Kirby and his family, which as been called “the most shocking photo used in an ad” (Lester).
According to Lester, David’s parents, Bill and Kay Kirby, gave their permission to Benetton to use the photo in an advert, because “they thought it would raise AIDS awareness around the world.” Company executives donated $50,000 to Pater Noster House for improvements (Lester).
People were utterly outraged by the advert. Roman Catholics felt the photo “mocked classical imagery of Mary cradling Christ after his Crucifixion” and AIDS activists were “furious at what they saw as a corporate exploitation of death in order to sell T-shirts” (Cosgrove).
During the time of the advert, Therese said she was “falling apart” (LIFE). But, Bill Kirby told her “Listen, Therese. Benetton didn’t use us, or exploit us. We used them. Because of them, your photo was seen all over the world, and that’s exactly what David wanted” (LIFE).
The Kirby’s didn’t waiver in their decision to allow Benetton to use the image. Kay Kirby said, “We just felt it was time that people saw the truth about AIDS, and if Benetton could help in that effort, fine. That ad was the last chance for people to see David — a marker, to show that he was once here, among us” (LIFE).
In reasoning the advert, the company argued the campaign is to make people think and talk about serious issues and advocate world multiculturalism (Lester). Toscani said, “Advertising can be used to say something that is real about things that exist” (qtd. in Lester).
With these controversial advertising campaigns, the company wants to “create advertising that breaks traditional banal presentations in order to focus more attention on the company” (Lester). During the controversy surrounding the advert featuring Kirby, worldwide sales increased by more than $100 million from 1991-1992 (Lester).