“Don’t Benetton it”, I overheard someone on set say regarding an editorial project that I was part of that was highlighting the LGBTQIA+ community. “Benetton-ing” has become a negative term that people use to denote inauthentic pandering to niche audiences. People warn against the lure of becoming a Benetton, which is to say a brand who exploits messaging surrounding issues such as poverty or racial equality but does not substantially have any intention of doing a single thing about those issues.
This argument is interesting for a few reasons. At least in the late 80s and early 90s, when Benetton burst onto the advertising scene, their ads were controversial to say the least. There were certainly ones with a significant amount of shock value, primarily featuring graphic imagery of people and babies with HIV/AIDS. There were also several denoting intimate relationships between people of various races and ethnic groups. If you Google “Benetton” ads, you’ll see the whole gamut. For all of the complaining and backlash, however, there is something to be said about Benetton’s unique commitment to representation and challenging the status quo. At the time, mass marketing for clothing brands was hardly concerned with the racial makeup of the models that were employed to sell the clothes. Another way to look at it is that brands were supremely concerned with making sure that the majority, if not all of those models that were employed, were white.
The criticism over Benetton and how it has morphed over the historical analysis of marketing, boils down to the fact that Benetton as a company had some questionable ethics policies: stealing land from Indigenous tribes, ties to factories who are unconcerned with the wellbeing and safety of workers and mostly, for covering all this up.
Benetton is a cautionary tale for many reasons, but increasingly over the years, the public has little tolerance for companies who do not “walk the walk”. Pandering to audiences and communities who are underrepresented is a dangerous game. While a smart strategy for marketing targets specific groups, doing so in a way that is so clearly inauthentic is problematic and will likely result in the intense backlash that is so typical of cancel culture.
The diversity conversation is a hot one in every industry. As more populations become educated, we can clearly draw connections about the insidious ways that racism is hard at work, upholding systems of privilege and disenfranchisement. It’s not satisfactory enough that we have had a Black president in the United States when the industrial prison complex disproportionately keeps a staggering percentage of the Black population behind bars.
Yet, theoretically, minorities have more upwardly mobile opportunities than ever before. The Black community (and others) have an unprecedented amount of disposable income and unlimited occasions to spend that income but because of the aforementioned education factor, we are more informed and more scrupulous consumers than ever.
Nothing can incite a public firestorm quite like consumers being marketed to by people who have ulterior motives. Sure, we are all in the business of selling things and while capitalism is king, there are certain lines that are unacceptable to cross. Besides representation in outward and public-facing campaigns, savvy consumers are simply not content to see a Black girl, Asian girl and a redhead propped up in store windows, or displayed in Times Square if every staff person in the store is white. Consumers want to know what the executive staff looks like. They want to know that people that look like them are being employed and that they are not simply a convenient and potentially lucrative slice of market share.
It is critical that there are diverse advertisements, but also that governing bodies of companies reflect the array of perspectives that are required to make a brand that claims to be “diverse,” authentically so. This happens often when indie or niche brands are purchased by huge conglomerates like Estee Lauder. They start to lose credibility with the consumers. Of course more money funneling into a company presents tremendous opportunity for growth, but in the eyes of the public, it means that the people who now make the important decisions have changed.
Just last week, I encountered two different scenarios which demonstrated the mistakes that a company can make when they clearly haven’t empowered people of color within their organization to speak up and stop something insane from happening. Whenever we have a situation surrounding racial insensitivity, people outcry, “but how could this happen? Why did nobody stop this?” The answer is simple. There was no one to stop it. To the several sets of only white eyes that reviewed those images and campaigns, those issues weren't cause for alarm. They weren't offended, or inclined to say anything. In some cases, they might actually congratulate themselves for a job well done.
For example, early one morning I received an email from Tommy Hilfiger’s press office about an exciting new “inclusivity initiative” that they are working on. The goal of this project is to amplify opportunities for communities who are underrepresented in the fashion industry. Tommy Hilfiger was quoted in the press release, proud and happy to be attached to the project. The contest takes place in Amsterdam, which is already going to be prohibitive to inclusivity in many ways, but that’s not even the worst part. There was also a photo attached to the email that featured the members of the jury who were responsible for selecting the winners of the “fashion challenge” aimed at increasing inclusivity. All but one of them were white. This was a tone deaf and flagrantly opportunistic promotional initiative. The project itself, achieves nothing except strategic usage of positive-sounding buzzwords but in actuality, it silences and excludes the very communities it claims to want to aid.
The second example came to my attention when fashion retailer, The Real Real emailed to say that they are hosting a “Black History Month panel” at their store in soho, featuring the Black fashion director of Vanity Fair and a promising young designer who won the Vogue Fashion Fund grant last year. The panel is moderated by a white woman. The fact that this brand would choose to center a Black history narrative around someone white is wildly offensive and also provides further evidence that no one Black could have been involved in the planning. In 2020, this is unacceptable.
When a brand wants to convey anything to the public, making sure that the desired messaging can withstand multiple layers of scrutiny and go far beyond the surface level, is a nonnegotiable. It is critical that marketing and advertising reflects the global community who are all consuming products and it is imperative to make sure that diverse voices are being heard in rooms where no one is watching. Often times this requires a major overhaul in company culture. It requires people to humble themselves and open up to the ideas and potential of people who do not have the same experiences that they do. This is extremely difficult work.
Many beauty companies continually cite the “Fenty Effect” as if it is some sort of mysterious phenomenon. Marketers are confused about why Rihanna’s cosmetics company is making money hand over fist when they, too, produce over 40 shades of foundation. The difference with what Rihanna did was put women of color at the forefront. She invited consumers in by speaking directly to them, whereas more traditional makeup companies waited for women of color to discover their shades through searching, or trial and error. Rihanna simply held a mirror up to herself, which further emphasizes my point about having people in executive positions that can make crucial decisions about not only how products are marketed, but also how they are made and produced.
In order to make progress, people of color must be empowered to share their ideas and to oversee narratives that directly speak to them and their communities. It is no longer satisfactory for a room full of white men to be dictating to a consumer base that is far outside of their scope of reach. While Benetton remains frozen in the last millenium as a cautionary tale, in the year 2020, there is still, sadly, the potential for a brand to make the same mistakes.
Before launching an initiative celebrating diversity, here are 3 questions to ask yourself:
- Are there people employed here that I know are members of a community that we are trying to reach? Have they felt included and empowered to contribute before this project?
- Is there someone outside of this organization that I can hire who can advise on the best practices for engaging with a new community in the most sensitive and effective way?
- If someone looked closely at this brand, beyond the initiative, would they find that the messaging is consistent throughout the brands values and on a behind the scenes level, versus just front-facing?