Special report: Creativity in outdoor advertising: Benetton: slices of life

In this special report, we invited seven creative directors, known for their talent in out-of-home advertising, to identify their favorite piece of outdoor, and then, hypothetically, to 'sell' it to the client - in about 750 words.To make the exercise that...

In this special report, we invited seven creative directors, known for their talent in out-of-home advertising, to identify their favorite piece of outdoor, and then, hypothetically, to ‘sell’ it to the client – in about 750 words.

To make the exercise that much more challenging, we asked them to choose an execution that was not their own.

The objectives of this project were two-fold: to bring examples of great outdoor front and centre; and by analyzing specific executions, to get to the heart of what makes outdoor work.

‘What are the basic tenets, the guiding principles of creating successful outdoor’, we asked the participating creative directors, ‘and how does the chosen billboard, transit shelter or mural abide by, or even transcend, those rules of thumb?’

To get things started, we asked the creative directors to imagine themselves in a meeting with the client, faced with having to pitch their chosen execution.

Graham Watt is president of Montreal-based Watt Burt Advertising.

Agency: Watt Burt Advertising

Client: Benetton

Product: Clothing

What we’re going to show you today is an outdoor advertising campaign, a bit of life the way we live it, nothing rare or unusual; in fact, some of the scenes are kind of everyday.

The media has made cliches of many of them, television feeds on them nightly, they are the pablum of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, and his metaphorical father, Sam Peckinpah.

So, what we want to associate with your splendid line, United Colours of Benetton, is a series of snapshots of the life we live today.

Not a manufactured Tarantino version, pumped to satiate a need for violence, just everyday stuff. What we want to do with it is juxtapose it with your Benetton name.

Now, this kind of juxtaposition would get any North American client off the All-Bran in a hurry, but we know from experience that you like to be provocative, you have a family business, you’re Italian, and you’ve grown up in an European environment where outdoor posters are not secondary advertising tools, but prime media and prime influencers.

You’re familiar with that famous Italian First World War poster of a wounded Italian soldier, deficient in armament, but not in spirit, hurling his crutch at hordes of charging German soldiers. It needed no pun to support it.

You see posters as a kind of still television, and, in fact, it’s all you use globally.

Simple. No language problems, inexpensive. Easy to use.

Because you just use posters, they must be provocative, and they have to relate to the lives your customers live.

Your line, United Colours of Benetton, refers to the variety of your clothing, and, as importantly, to the diversity of your customers in race, in religion, in culture and in lifestyle. A bringing together of all peoples in peace and understanding.

The world we live in is bizarre and almost unmentionably painful. As humans, we’ve learned to camouflage, to paint over, incredible tragedies that seem to occur without end.

If we didn’t, we’d go mad. We also relieve ourselves of the pain of real human tragedy by pretending we control it, in film and music, and by hiding in sports as spectators. But, the raw nasty truth lurks all about your customers.

Curiously, few of us have exploited reality in advertising. If we show some reality, are we not acknowledging it?

If we show a young man dying of aids, comforted by an already grieving father and mother, are we not acknowledging our own temporary existence and the effect we have on others?

Is this exploitive because we put the Benetton name on it?

Of course it is. All advertising is exploitive.

That’s why we do it. And, that’s why lots of people don’t like it. We’ve had almost 100 years of pushing benefits to an insecure public.

Life will be better, you’ll grow a bigger dick, your car will get you laid, he’ll think you’re drop-dead beautiful.

No matter that you look like a beached sperm whale and have trouble rolling off the couch to get another bag of natchos. A dying aids victim is exploitive?

Compare it with a Calvin Klein poster showing a man and a woman tugging off each other’s underwear.

Both are exploitive. One is real. The other is an underwear ad.

Is the dying aids victim more exploitive than hundreds of violent television programs hooked into the sale of toy figures that exist to express violence?

Mr. Benetton, you’re on safe ground merely showing life as it happens.

I can almost guarantee that some people in the ad industry will get on their high horses of indignation, and condemn the showing of reality in advertising. They will say that it is obscene.

But, most of them live in a society in which they pay men seven million dollars a year to hit a ball with a stick three times out of 10 on a good day, while people go hungry in the street, so I’m not sure they have a handle on obscenity, or, for that matter, reality.

Our approach is exploitive. But, if you’re going to exploit, exploit!

Get out there and let them take shots at you. You may be vilified for relating the truth of our lives to your products, but, hey, the tv networks do this for a living everyday, and we suck it up like oxygen.

cnn could be renamed Guns ‘R Us. Or, am I wrong, and all those news programs don’t have sponsors and advertising?

So, that’s it, Mr. Benetton, good luck, and thanks for the sleeveless sweater.