Ten years ago, Italian fashion brand Benetton seemed to be suffering a slow death – while they manufactured great clothing, they were terrible at retailing it and were left behind when fashion moved on. Now, it’s planning to come back and live up to its own great history with the Benetton Spring 2013 range, creative director You Nguyen’s second season for Benetton; he continues to infuse the brand with fashion-forward elements but without forsaking its commercial appeal. In fact, Benetton’s rise and fall … and rise is quite similar to that of local streetwear brand Loxion Culture, which disappeared and then put itself back on the map thanks to great marketing and retailing strategies. Benetton is famous for thought-provoking and controversial ads designed to get people to talk about a topic and also the brand – such as the digitally created image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Ahmed el-Tayeb, imam of the al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, or of HIV-positive David Kirby photographed on his deathbed in hospital.

Now United Colors of Benetton, as part of its UN* HATE* Foundation, is launching Unemployee of the Year, a social campaign that highlights the global problem of mass youth unemployment. Unemployed 18- to 30-year-olds can win a grant of €5 000 (about R52 000) to start up a project that has a positive impact on their community. This online contest is designed to inspire unemployed youths to take back their dignity and show the world they have practical skills to offer, while supporting a ‘culture of non-hate’. Benetton hopes that Unemployee of the Year will again inspire a generation to look at what’s happening in the world and to find their own new, creative solutions to the problem of unemployment.

Here are a couple of their most controversial ads:

Newborn baby, 1991

This ad was initially intended to be an anthem to life but Benetton was asked to take down ad posters because of a public outcry.

HIV-positive ad campaign in Paris, 1992

This comprised a series of photographs of HIV-positive patient David Kirby as he lay in a hospital bed, dying.

Anti-racism ad in Rome, 1996

A picture of three human hearts labeled ‘White’, ‘Black’, ‘Yellow’.

Food for Life ad, 2003

An amputee with a spoon attached to his limb, aiming to show the role of food in catalyzing social change, peace and development.

Do you consider this marketing brilliance or are the ads simply distasteful?

Zethu Gqola, CT intern