Outraged by Benetton's new advertising campaign that features interviews with convicted killers, Sears, Roebuck and Co. stores in Maryland removed Benetton USA apparel from their floors yesterday, in compliance with a corporate protest against the clothing company.
Most stores nationwide were able to comply with the companywide order to remove the clothing before stores opened yesterday, according to a spokeswoman for Sears, the second-largest U.S. retailer.
The decision to remove the brand, which Sears has sold exclusively since last fall, came after Benetton officials refused to pull the "We, on death row," advertising campaign, said Peggy Palter, a spokeswoman for Sears.
"It's inconsistent with the image of Sears, which stands for family values," she said. "Our stores were anxious to take the products off. They were getting calls and questions from customers."
The Benetton campaign, valued at $15 million globally, is scheduled to continue in the United States through next month and is being rolled out in major publications across Europe and Asia.
The U.S. campaign included a photo essay in Tina Brown's magazine Talk, images in national magazines and billboards around New York City.
"I would expect a reaction like this, particularly from a company like Sears who represents main-stream America," said Andy Dumaine, partner/creative director of the Campbell Group, a Baltimore-based advertising and public relations agency.
"[Benetton's campaign is] a very transparent attempt to manipulate consumers."
Introduced through the clothing company's United Colors of Benetton stores, the campaign was timed for the year 2000 to coincide with a moratorium called for by the United Nations against the death penalty, said Mark Major, a spokesman for Benetton in the United States.
"We're disappointed," Major said. "But obviously we're two companies with two different sets of interests. We completely understand their need to accommodate their customers. We respect that Sears is taking a lot of heat.
"The reaction to the campaign has been very critical, but there's also been a lot of support," Major said. "The whole idea was to get people to talk. It's gotten a lot of attention, maybe more attention on the campaign and less on capital punishment than we had expected."
Some in the advertising industry question the company's interest in such social issues.
"They would argue that they're trying to raise the consciousness of all these different social issues," Dumaine said. "But I wonder what business a clothing company has raising social issues. If they were interested in raising social consciousness, they'd leave their logo off the ad."
Like Calvin Klein, Benetton has been known for taking chances with its advertising, once featuring a dying AIDS patient, another time showing two nuns kissing and another showing refugees jumping off a ship.
"They have a long history of doing this," said Neil M. Alperstein, an associate professor of popular culture at Loyola College. "Does it work? If the intent is to gain attention, then it works. If the intent is to sell sweaters, then the connection is pretty tangential."
Alperstein said he's wondered if the fact that Calvin Klein and Benetton both have in-house advertising departments means that their sensibilities to the limits of acceptability are different than they would be if the ideas came from an agency that also had to be responsive to other clients.
"I used to think that it was the public that determined whether marketers had gone too far," he said. "Now I think it's corporate America stepping in quickly to respond, afraid of potential backlash from special interest groups. Sears isn't necessarily responding to whether this is in good taste, they're responding to the potential backlash."
Sears, based in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, violated its contract by halting sales of the brand, giving Benetton the right to cancel the agreement, according to Palter. Benetton officials declined to say what the next step would be.
Benetton USA merchandise is designed by Benetton, a unit of Milan, Italy-based Benetton Group SpA, and manufactured by a third party. It has been carried in 400 Sears stores since last fall.
Sears, with annual revenue of $41 billion, has 20 full-line stores in Maryland. It was not immediately clear how many of the Maryland stores had been carrying the Benetton brand. The line was being sold mainly at Sears stores in larger, urban locations. Sears has more than 850 full-line department stores nationwide.