Sportswear with a Worldview?

Visitors to clothing-maker Benetton's website are in for a surprise. Instead of being greeted by pictures of attractive men and women in brightly colored sportswear, the first thing they'll see is three death-row inmates in drab prison uniforms. Why? Because, Benetton, like a lot of trendy businesses these days, is trying to sell you more than goods and services. To all appearances, the promotion called "We On Death Row" has nothing to do with clothes. Benetton joined forces with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to, as their press release puts it, "[show the] public the reality of capital punishment...." The company wants to give "a human face" to prisoners on death row, in hopes of reminding what Benetton calls "respectable people [who] are always so sure they're right" that the debate over capital punishment involves people, and not video-game characters. So Benetton enlisted a photographer to take pictures of men and women in prison. The portraits, and a series of interviews, will be featured on ads, billboards, and in newspapers and magazines. If you're still wondering what any of this has to do with sweaters, you need to know that this isn't the first time the Italian retailer has tackled controversial issues. Previous campaigns have focused on AIDS, racism, and war. It's not just an image, and it isn't just sportswear—they're selling a worldview. And the message is clear: If you want to be part of the "united colors of Benetton," then this is what you have to believe. And the corollary is that anybody who disagrees, or who holds a different view, is just not part of the "in" crowd. But Benetton isn't the only one pitching a worldview. Abercrombie & Fitch markets a worldview that centers around the pursuit of erotic pleasure. Their most recent catalog is so explicit that it comes in a wrapper, to keep its contents well disguised. But make no mistake: The whole purpose is to appeal to teenagers who think sex is cool. Abercrombie wants kids to think their clothes are cool, too, so they're promoting a worldview to sell a product. Most advertisers may not be quite so blatant, but you can be sure they know exactly what they're doing. Their goal is to create a mindset, and then attract people who agree to it, both to further their point of view and to make the product fashionable to those who identify with these views. Ben and Jerry's makes good ice cream, but no better than any other premium brand. So what do Ben and Jerry do? They make a big deal of their commitment to liberal environmental causes, giving profits to "save the rainforests." The message? If you want to protect the environment, eat Ben and Jerry's. MTV has made it clear that their real mission transcends music. They want to be a cultural force, shaping the habits, values, and attitudes of your kids. So as Christians, we need to be discerning about advertising. It can be more powerful than straight political messages because it is so subtle. Without even realizing it, you or your kids can soak up somebody's political or cultural agenda, and begin to act accordingly. My advice? Watch out when you watch ads. A lot of advertisers are competing for your dollars. Many of them aren't just pitching a product; they're promoting a worldview—one that may be at odds with your deeply held beliefs.


Chuck Colson


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