Who´s afraid of religious controversies?

March 14, 2017

A case of conflict over symbol use

Unhate. Photo: Benetton

Unhate. Photo: Benetton

In the public space of many contemporary societies, use of religious content in commercial advertising has become especially frequent. Sometimes this use causes controversy and even conflicts with religious institutions and groups, which can generate rather heated debates and public reactions against the advertising messages and the companies that create them. Benetton’s global advertising campaign Unhate, featuring a digitally manipulated picture of pope Benedict XVI kissing a senior Egyptian imam, and the consequent controversy, represents a good case in point.

The account offered by The Telegraph, published shortly after the launch of the campaign, offers a short overview of the facts.

At issue was a photo montage used for commercial purposes, which clearly crossed a “semantic boundary” considered to be within and subject to the control of the religious field. The resulting tensions between the subjects protesting against this portrayal and the company that made it caused a conflict at the heart of which lays the problem of the legitimate use of symbols referring to widely recognized religious knowledge systems.

Analyzing how this conflict was discursively elaborated can help to identify the positions of the different subjects involved, including the power relations they exerted on one another.

The Vatican’s reaction was immediate. On the same day the picture of the kiss was unveiled in Rome, the Vatican’s spokesperson released an official statement protesting against an “unacceptable use” of the pope’s image for “commercial ends,” citing the billboard’s “serious lack of respect” for the dignity of the pope and “the feelings of the faithful.” In addition, he announced legal action, in Italy and abroad, to prevent its distribution.

Another religious organization that opposed the advertisement was Egypt’s al-Azhar University, which denounced publicly the picture as “irresponsible and absurd,” while a Moroccan imam filed a lawsuit in Rome claiming that the ad was offensive to religious feelings.

The religious actors’ main tactics were therefore to take the conflict out of the religious domain and move it (or threaten to move it) entirely into the legal field, where state law comes into play and the resolution of disputes is placed in the hands of legal experts. The reference to the feelings of the believers reinforced this strategy. The Vatican’s official statement was in this sense a way to indicate that there is a significant amount of people who call themselves Catholic and providing consensus to the religious field.

Other actors from the Catholic world that got involved into the conflict included the leader of the French Catholic Democratic party, an association for the protection of television viewers’ rights in Italy, a youth association, a parents’ association and a group of Internet users active on religious blogs and online forums.

These actors appeared to share a tougher position than the one adopted by the religious institutions, as they identified the point of controversy not simply in the commercial exploitation of the pope’s image, but in the “gay kiss.” This turned out to be not only disrespectful but also “blasphemous,” which resulted in a call to boycott Benetton’s products in France and Italy.


How did Benetton respond? By relying on common sense and omitting the economic dimension of the campaign. At first, the clothing company issued a statement saying the image was intended to portray the concept of “reconciliation” and its use was conceived as a stimulus to reflect “on how politics, faith and ideas, when they are divergent and mutually opposed, must still lead to dialogue and mediation.” This is an assumption that few, at least in principle, would deny.

Shortly after, however, the Benetton Group’s spokesperson issued a new statement to address the controversy: “We are sorry that the use of the image of the Pope and the Imam has so offended the sentiments of the faithful. In corroboration of our intentions, we have decided, with immediate effect, to withdraw this image from every publication.”

Meanwhile, another parallel conflict took place between advertising professionals. The creator of the Unhate campaign, Cuban artist Erik Ravelo, commented that the picture was inspired by the photograph of the iconic kiss between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany’s President Erich Honecker taken in 1979 and later appeared on the east side of the Berlin Wall.                                                        

Brezhnev and Honecker on the Berlin Wall. Photo: flickr.

Brezhnev and Honecker on the Berlin Wall. Photo: flickr.

However, this contrasted what the media covering the controversy were recognizing, namely that the pope-imam kiss ad was a clear reference to an old Benetton’s advertisement showing a priest and a nun kissing. The latter was a picture taken by Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, who indeed intervened in the debate accusing Ravelo to have plagiarized his work. 

"Kissing-nun" (1992). Photo: Benetton

"Kissing-nun" (1992). Photo: Benetton

Here the specific object of dispute was the ability to generate advertising content socially recognized as creative and appealing. The issue of concern was confined all to the inside of the advertising sub-field where the competence to produce this kind of content represents a form of capital. 

A Few Outcomes

Benetton’s efforts appeared to be stalling in the face of strong opposition from the religious field backed by associations and individual believers. In fact, not only did the clothing company apologized, but it also promised to withdraw the poster.

And yet, these events might have unfolded differently than they appeared to.

Several commentators suggested that since controversial campaigns have long been a part of Benetton’s communication strategy, the company was expecting to deal with complaints against the ad in the first place. Moreover, Benetton, which committed itself to removing the picture from its websites and stores, did not do anything to avoid its diffusion on the Internet, where still today the advertisement is widely available. In the meantime, media from all over the world covered the conflict by making the kiss between the pope and the imam exceptionally popular.

Finally – and we come back to the use of religious symbols – it is possible to argue that the controversy ended with the “objectification” of the picture, which soon started to take on a life of its own, by working as an internal citation within the advertising field.

Two subsequent events supported this objectification process. The campaign won the 2012 Press Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions Festival, the most prestigious international advertising award. A photograph of pope Francis embracing and locking lips with Israeli president Shimon Peres, taken during an official meeting in June 2014, recalled, according to media reports, Benetton’s manipulated image.

Pope Francis smooching Shimon Peres. Photo: La Repubblica

Pope Francis smooching Shimon Peres. Photo: La Repubblica

The interpretation is that the kiss between the pope and the imam has become an advertising appeal so highly accessible that even a picture of the real pope welcoming another world leader to Rome is now able to send the people who watch it to the Benetton brand and, most importantly, to the commercial meaning system constructed around it. Could this be a sign of the company’s victory?