Dr. Keith Ablow Calls Out Benetton For Trying to Ruin World Via Gay Sex

Benetton is an Italian clothing company with a strong history of controversial advertising meant to evoke discomfort and questioning of the self. Some of their more famous (or infamous) campaigns have included a photograph taken of grieving family members inside the hospital room of an AIDS victim, portraits of convicted felons on death row, and a priest and a nun sharing a kiss.

Benetton’s most recent campaign is, to some, even more shocking: influential world leaders in politics and religion kissing each other with the slogan “UNHATE” emblazoned above them. Pairings include but are not limited to President Obama and Hugo Chavez, Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, and Pope Benedict XVI with the Imam of the Cairo al-Azhar mosque, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb.

The new campaign is controversial, to say the least. Sexualizing religious figures amounts to sacrilege for many, and it’s easy to read the pairing of oppositional leaders (like Obama and Chavez) as mocking. NewsBusters, which purportedly exists to “expose and combat liberal media bias,” explains it like this:

Benetton strangely calls it an “Unhate” campaign, even though it seems pretty hateful to religious people (and perhaps even Obama fans, who can’t like the thought of conservatives chortling at Obama kissing Hugo Chavez). The Journal noted Benetton’s campaign drew a quick reaction from the Vatican: “We must express a firm complaint for the unacceptable use of his Holy Father’s image, manipulated and exploited in an advertising campaign with a commercial purpose,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement. Benetton said it is pulling the version featuring the pope, but that it hasn’t received other complaints.

Why do the ads reference “unhate?” What does Obama kissing Hu Jintao have to do with hatred or the lack thereof? Benetton Group’s deputy chairman, Alessandro Benetton, put it this way:

While global love is still a utopia, albeit a worthy one, the invitation ‘not to hate’, to combat the ‘culture of hatred’, is an ambitious but realistic objective,” he said. “At this moment in history, so full of major upheavals and equally large hopes, we have decided, through this campaign, to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of ‘the other’ and of what is unfamiliar to us.

Is it worthwhile or defensible to risk offending deeply held religious or nationalist sensibilities to promote an idealized image of global getting along? What can anyone, on any side of any issue, learn or take away from a falsified image of the Pope kissing an Egyptian imam? Is it a call to action for President Obama to depict him kissing leaders from Venezuela and China? Those are all interesting questions, but they’re not ones that critics of the campaign are necessarily interested in asking. FOX News, for instance, has only one real major concern: Why does it have to be so gay?

Dr. Keith Ablow, who you may remember as also being extremely concerned about the gay parenting agenda at J. Crew, understands that the real threat from Benetton’s ad campaign is about the rampant homosexuality seething in the subtext.

…Benettonians — that new movement of homoerotic Utopians — are telling us, homosexual sex is what matters — and so much of it, in such unrestrained fashion as to unite men from democracies with men from dictatorships, Catholic and Muslim leaders, black men and white men. See, we had it all wrong talking about hearts and minds, about the Greatest Generation and lessons from history. We had it wrong elevating principle over pleasure and sacrifice over sexual gratification. We had it wrong thinking we could move the world forward while allowing men to be attracted to women. Our connections must be made man-to-man, with our tongues and genitals. That is the only road forward.

Make no mistake, this series of images published and posted along streets by Benetton is a declaration of psychological warfare on religious tradition and cultural mores and one that elevates narcissism and sexual gratification above intelligence and leadership. It is a direct message to the young people targeted by Benetton marketeers that theirs should be a generation defined by indulging in erotic pleasure above all else, and without regard to one’s religious vows, or moral standards, or respect for one’s office and public face, or one’s word.

Wow! That’s a very complex message for a campaign that only actually utilizes one word!

Ablow is right that Benetton has never really shied away from gay messaging — some of their smaller brands, like Sisley, have advertised in gay publications, and also ran a TV ad in 1995 that featured Jenny Shimizu talking about a dress that “you sometimes think you love more than your boyfriend… but let’s not get started on that one.”  But on the other hand, he fails to mention that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are also among the Photoshopped philanderers, or address what their heterosexual smooch says about “connections being made man-t0-man.” And frankly, looking at Netanyahu and Abbas’s chaste little peck and taking away a message of “sexual gratification” and “erotic pleasure” seems like some willful misinterpretation.

If the world leaders pictured had been women kissing other women, would Ablow have been as upset? (If we lived in a world where there were enough female leaders of global superpowers that such a photoshoot was possible, would we even have to have this conversation?) Is it really about the fact that same-sex affection is being expressed (because really, affection is all this is — between Benetton’s stated messaging and these photos, it really seems like loving tolerance is the most scandalous sentiment in evidence here)? Or is it about the fact that powerful men, literally some of the most powerful men in the world, are being pictured as sustaining loving, physically affectionate relationships with each other? Is it really an intimation of homosexuality, or just a subversive vision of masculine heterosexuality?

Alessandro Benetton is right; “global love” is a pretty ambitious objective, and honestly, it’s unlikely that it’s going to be accomplished with slick advertising, as interesting and well-realized as it may be. But if it can upset some gendered norms of behavior and question the mutual exclusivity of political power and human affection, maybe it’s accomplishing something pretty ambitious already.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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34 Comments

  1. Interesting to see that Benetton have withdrawn the advert showing the Pope kissing the muslim Imam, under pressure from the Vatican. Maybe they will replace it with something the Vatican finds more acceptable, like a priest molesting a sobbing child…

  2. I love this campaign. It’s funny and optimistic.

    “If we lived in a world where there were enough female leaders of global superpowers that such a photoshoot was possible, would we even have to have this conversation?”

    Oh man, preach, sister, preach.

  3. The fuck??!

    “We had it wrong elevating principle over pleasure and sacrifice over sexual gratification. We had it wrong thinking we could move the world forward while allowing men to be attracted to women.”

    No, you were elevating straight men’s pleasure over women’s right to their own bodies and sacrificing women’s sexual gratification. You were thinking you could move the (straight, white, cis) world forward while forcing people to pretend to be heterosexual. What you had wrong was this entire article, and everything else you write concerning sexuality, gender, and politics. So just shut the fuck up, “Dr.” Keith Ablow.

  4. firstly, now that I no longer regularly frequent the Astor Place neighborhood in NYC cuz I don’t live there anymore, I’d forgotten that Benetton existed. I think this is a great campaign for this reason!

    this:

    “Is it worthwhile or defensible to risk offending deeply held religious or nationalist sensibilities to promote an idealized image of global getting along? What can anyone, on any side of any issue, learn or take away from a falsified image of the Pope kissing an Egyptian imam? Is it a call to action for President Obama to depict him kissing leaders from Venezuela and China? Those are all interesting questions, but they’re not ones that critics of the campaign are necessarily interested in asking. FOX News, for instance, has only one real major concern: Why does it have to be so gay?”

    hits the nail on the head… i do think it’s problematic to create these images for an ad campaign. but also benetton was controversial when i was a kid because it showed interracial couples, and i remember always thinking that was awesome even if their shirts cost more than I could sell my kidney for on the black market.

    ALSO THIS:
    If we lived in a world where there were enough female leaders of global superpowers that such a photoshoot was possible, would we even have to have this conversation?)

  5. …Benettonians — that new movement of homoerotic Utopians — are telling us, homosexual sex is what matters — and so much of it, [You’re missing the point, clearly, although homo sex does matter] in such unrestrained fashion as to unite men from democracies with men from dictatorships, [wait, define democracy and cross check with the reality of “democracy”] Catholic and Muslim leaders [just for funsies], black men and white men. [oh no! not black men with white men! what is this world coming to?!] See, we had it all wrong talking about hearts and minds, about the Greatest Generation and lessons from history. We had it wrong elevating principle over pleasure and sacrifice over sexual gratification. [yes, you did] We had it wrong thinking we could move the world forward while allowing men to be attracted to women. [allowing? really? weren’t you thinking of the word imposing?] Our connections must be made man-to-man, with our tongues and genitals. [preferably with tongues ON genitals] That is the only road forward. [it’s worth a try]

  6. I found out at work today that there’s a Keith Ablow who writes horror novels. Not the same “Keith Ablow M.D.” that this sick fuck plasters on all of his books, but there are striking similarities beyond just the name: both write scary things that are made up.

  7. ” psychological warfare on religious tradition ”

    Okay, I have to get this off my chest because I’ve run into this a couple of times in the last few days and I just have to rant a bit: WHOSE RELIGIOUS TRADITION?? Certainly not mine! And mine isn’t the only one! There are lots of religions all over the world and throughout time that have accepted folks who we would call LGBTI into the fold, so to speak. There are even entire Christian sects and individual churches right now here in the USA that aren’t homophobic. None of these religions/sects are at all threatened or attacked by the continued existence of queers, so stop pretending you speak for everyone with deeply held religious beliefs, Ablow!

    I hate hate HATE it when Christians in this country act like they own the concept of “religion” or “faith” or “morals.” It’s usually the really conservative ones who get super aggressive about it, but even the liberal ones are sometimes guilty of that too. My sister’s friend runs a group at their university called “Women of Faith” and when she invited me to join and I asked her which faith, specifically, did she mean, she had no idea what I meant. I explained and she answered, “Oh, the normal ones, of course. Like, Christians, y’know?” Yeah, I know.

  8. Onestly the campaign just reprises an older concept and quotes the famous kiss Breznev Honecker. That being said I didn’t think it would have been this controversial. I mean, I predicted that the Pope would have gotten all bothered with the picture, but I believe that if it would have been someone famous to take the picture, say Oliviero Martini, it would be still there.

  9. I think the most irritating thing about Ablow’s objection to these pictures as “homoerotic” is that there is nothing whatsoever erotic about these pictures. They could have made the images much more sexualized if they wanted to. (Just look at the sexy nun picture!) But they used images that look like traditional cultural greetings instead. IT’S NOT ABOUT SEX!
    Geez.
    Sorry. I just had to yell.

  10. “allowing men to be attracted to women” Haha what? Was this ever a problem? Poor heterosexual men, that’s so sad.

    I don’t understand why it isn’t obvious that the reason they’re “gay” kisses at all is because most world leaders happen to be men. It’s about world leaders, not men, showing affection and trust, though the fact that most of them are men does make it something more of a statement.

    Also, the negative attitude towards these ads seems to be from a rather specifically American perspective. It’s not at all uncommon in most other cultures for heterosexual men to greet each other with a perfunctory kiss, whether on the cheeks or lips. Britishers aren’t this uptight. I’ve often seen British heterosexual males kissing each other lightly on the lips.

    Anyway, I’m personally fascinated by these pictures. It shows a world I can’t imagine living in, but even that’s important, just for making us think about what that means for this world.

    • Haha, well… I’m American, so, you know, obviously you know more than me. :) It probably is regional. I just watch a lot of British shows and films and see a lot of pictures of British celebrities and they don’t seem to mind being openly affectionate to one another, much more so than American men, anyway (although that too is regional). Also, Paul McCartney kisses a lot of his friends on the mouth and doesn’t seem to think anything of it. I’m pretty sure I was thinking of him when I wrote that. xD But that may be celebrity privilege? Haha I really don’t know. Also, maybe they seem uptight to you, but wouldn’t to me? It’s all relative, I suppose.

      • Yeah, I’m sure that’s true, that even British men are fairly uptight and “no homo”, just sometimes I see some difference that seem remarkable to me and difficult to imagine in my society. Like heterosexual men calling each other “darling” and such. But yeah.

        Haha wellll… I’m a huge Paul McCartney fan (I love him so much!), so I have an enormous collection of photos of him. In a lot of those photos he’s being very affectionate with other men, especially Bono, as well as Ringo (of course) and George, when he was still around. I have pictures of him kissing George, as well as Ringo. It’s very sweet. But I think he’s just a very affectionate person, especially in his old age. :P

  11. I am upset that Benneton caved to the demands of the Vatican. Seems so unlike them. And I think an ad like that should honestly be the LEAST of the worries of the Catholic Church aka the world’s largest cult of organized pedophilia.

  12. It’s a great message, and normally, I would have great respect for this campaign. But here’s the problem: Benetton is not doing this because they want to promote unity or gay rights. They are doing it because they want people to think that they are promoting unity and gay rights, and that their company should be supported, and so people will buy their clothes. I think that it is highly disrespectful to trivialize the religious and cultural conflicts that are refenced by these advertizements in the goal of promoting a product.

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