Benetton's latest ad campaign -- The clothing company takes controversy to a new level

Is all the press that Benetton has garnered over its bad-boy ads amounting to one big, free commercial? Catholics, African-Americans, and others have protested the pricey clothier’s latest ads, which include pictures of a nun and a priest kissing, and a little white girl who looks angelic with a little black boy whose hair is combed like a devil’s horns. Even some magazines hard-pressed for ad dollars have refused to run them. All of which means that Benetton is getting more free publicity than its money couldn’t buy (including right here, right now). While the controversial print ads weren’t born not to run, Benetton spokesman Peter Fressola admits, ”It would be disingenuous for me to assert that it did not cross our minds that there might be a windfall in publicity.”

Yet it would be disingenuous of anyone to suggest that Benetton is a pioneer in this field. Reaping the rewards of rejected ads is becoming a grand old Madison Avenue tradition. Some politicians make ads so nasty they know they’ll never air — except as items on the local news. And when the networks axed Reebok’s bungee spot-in which a Nike jumper apparently falls to his death — the No. 2 sneaker brand’s image was pumped up.

But the most lucrative rejection has to be that of sportswear company No Excuses. When Marla Maples appeared in an ad last summer in which she helped ”clean up our planet” by literally trashing the Star and the National Enquirer, most TV stations refused it (the tabloids are sizable TV advertisers). The spurned spot was worth ”multimillions,” says No Excuses president Neil Cole. ”The networks that wouldn’t use it as a commercial ran it on their news shows for free. That’s a lot better than when people are running to the refrigerator.”

Meanwhile, the latest high-visibility un-run campaign is for Benetton’s sister company, Nordica sporting goods. Each ad features a skier (one male, one female) in a downhill position wearing nothing but Nordica ski boots and holding a handful of medals. The ads, conceived and photographed by Oliviero Toscani, also the mastermind behind Benetton’s rejected campaign, were roundly rejected by ski mags. But now the name is known. Who but powder hounds ever heard of Nordica before, and when would it ever have gotten a paragraph here?