Well, not exactly.
From images of death row inmates to people dying of Aids, the United Color of Benetton, a clothing store, is known for its shocking ads, which has often stirred controversy around the world. In their latest campaign, unveiled this past Wednesday, it has offended the Vatican so much that it is taking legal action to prevent the circulation of a doctored image depicting Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Egyptian imam. The Vatican called the image “offensive not only to the dignity of the Pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers.” As a result, the company announced that it was withdrawing the image in response to the protest from the Vatican. In a statement Wednesday, the Benetton Group said the “UNHATE” campaign was designed to “combat hatred” and promote “closeness between peoples, faiths, cultures, and the peaceful understanding of each other’s motivations.”
Besides the pope, the ads feature photomontages of world leaders locked in a kiss. President Obama is shown with China’s Hu Jintao and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Also, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is shown with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The most controversial, however, was Benedict shown with Ahmed Tayeb, leader of Al Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s most influential institution. Mahmud Azab, a spokesman for Al Azhar, stated that the ad was “irresponsible” and so absurd that the institution was “still hesitating as to whether it should issue a response.”
I don’t find these images offensive at all. Rather, I understand Benetton’s reasoning in creating such a controversial ad and believe it sends a strong, positive message. I agree with Alessandro Benetton, deputy chairman of Benetton Group, when he described their motive as, “In a moment of darkness, with the financial crisis, what’s going on in North African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy.”
However, did Benetton make the right decision by taking down these images? Wouldn’t John Stuart Mill support this ad as being a practice of free speech? In Chapter II of On Liberty, Mill states, “Absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological” Mill continues by stating “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” Mill makes it clear that any speech should be given attention to no matter how immoral it may seem to everyone else. Lastly, the only restriction to this free speech is described as“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Are these pictures really endangering anyone? What are your thoughts?