About 50 yards from the entrance to the prison in which I work is a large billboard, displaying the picture of a black man, his head inclined gently, almost romantically, against a wall. In large letters, the advertisement proclaims: SENTENCED TO DEATH. It is an advertisement for Benetton knitwear.
The man is Jerome Mallet, sentenced for killing a Missouri highway patrolman 15 years ago. According to the ad, Mallet "was looking for a perfect world back then": in a perfect world, of course, there would be no Missouri State Highway Patrol or police of any description.
What are the murderers released from my prison—Britain having abolished the death penalty—to make of this advertisement? That they are heroes, worthy of commemoration on billboards?
The mastermind of Benetton's advertising campaigns, Oliviero Toscani, says that "today's culture is images, and I don't draw any distinction between them." The first half of his statement approximates to a lamentable truth; the second half is a barefaced lie. Of course Toscani draws distinctions between images: he could hardly do his job if he did not.
In choosing pictures of murderers rather than of their victims, he appeals to the tender conscience of the liberal, whose ethical code consists simply of the categorical imperative to sympathize with those whom others abominate. The murderer-as-victim—more sinned against (by a heartless society) than sinner—is the liberal's last word in ethical chic. It was a masterstroke of Toscani's to choose cases in which the verdict was not in the least doubtful. "We are all equal," said Toscani, declaring Benetton's independence from moral convention—the mugged and the mugger, the raped and the rapist, the murdered and the murderer. "We can wear whatever we want, whatever colors we want."
Toscani added that advertising "is a far better medium for discussing [the death penalty] than journalism," as if his radical-chic sentimentality were a discussion, courageously making a profound moral point. That's the point of his ads, of course: to convince the susceptible that wearing one brand of knitwear instead of another is part of a moral crusade—an expression of compassion rather than of a personal whim that contributes to the profits of a large corporation. Henceforth goodness is to be the easy purchase of the right brands rather than the strenuous cultivation of virtue.
In Benetton, Jacques Derrida meets Citizen Kane: a mixture of pretension, nihilism, and utter unscrupulousness.