Digitally manipulated smooches have officially taken the Internet by storm. The Italian fashion company Benetton unleashed their controversial “Unhate Campaign,” on Wednesday, and the initial feedback has been mixed at best. Unhate consists of a series of advertisements that includes, among others, images of President Obama kissing Chinese leader Hu Jianto, Obama kissing Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, and Pope Benedict XVI kissing Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb. On Thursday, the latter was pulled following protests from the Vatican. (You can view it below.)

The message of the campaign seems to be pretty simple — people of different race, orientation, and creed should not hate each other. On that, I completely agree. What I don’t understand is what any of this has to do with Benetton clothing, and why they chose images of kissing world leaders to promote equality. Clothing advertisements, as a rule, typically range from the bold and sexual to the light and cheesy. Clothing has become a primary form of expression, and advertisements usually try to convey an image that buyers want to obtain. Clearly, these advertisements are an exception to the rule.

Benetton, with its “United Colors” moniker, has made some bold choices in the past, but nothing compares to the shock value attached to the images released this week. Are they really going to make consumers feel that Benetton clothing inspires equality, or will the jarring nature of a Pope-Imam kiss deter buyers? Did Benetton create this campaign to ignite legitimate conversation, or to sell more sweaters? More answers should be revealed as those responsible for the campaign inevitably start talking to the press, but please do tell us your thoughts in the comments. I personally feel that a campaign with real images of men and/or women kissing, hopefully while actually wearing Benetton clothing, might have been a better way to go. What do you think?