Give Sears credit for bucking the PC orthodoxy prevalent in corporate America these days. It terminated an exclusive contract to sell a special line of Benetton clothes after the uproar over the Italian company's repulsive "We, On Death Row" ads that romanticize convicted killers.
The ads began running in January with a huge supplement to Tina Brown's Talk magazine, featuring fan-magazine-style profiles of 26 murderers awaiting execution across the U.S. Jesse Compton's profile is typical. A full-page headshot accompanies an interview. "What did you want to be when you grew up?" he is asked. "A lumberjack," he replies. The questioner follows up: "What does it feel like when you're cutting through a tree?" Left unasked, however, is what it feels like to burn a three-year-old girl with a propane torch or puncture her stomach with a fork—subjects that Compton became an authority on when he and his girlfriend tortured her daughter to death.
Benetton claimed that its ads were intended to "stimulate a conversation about" (i.e., erode support for) capital punishment by "bringing a human face to the individuals on death row." None of the ads, though, mentioned the victims or the details of their slayings, suggesting that the lives the murderers took were less important than their own. Benetton expressly forbade its "subjects" from discussing their crimes or victims—even when some tried to show remorse—because it did not want to "distract readers."
Benetton has a long history of shock ads that push its left-wing politics. An earlier effort featured a priest and nun locked in a passionate kiss. Another showed a retouched photo of President Reagan disfigured with AIDS lesions—Benetton's way of criticizing his administration's AIDS record.
At least in the U.S., though, Benetton's politicized publicity has coincided with the company's precipitous decline: all but 200 of the 800 stores it operated here in the 1980s have closed. The steady erosion of its U.S. market share led the company to enter into its arrangement with old-fashioned Sears—the kind of place where the fashion firm's chic executives and upscale customers normally wouldn't be caught dead.
Benetton executives doubtless anticipated that the latest ads would spark a publicity-generating backlash, especially in a country where 70 percent of the adult population supports the death penalty. But Sears's decision is something that Benetton probably didn't foresee, and it may wind up reverberating in the marketplace, scaring off potential Benetton partners, franchisees, and consumers, at least on these shores.