Talk about provocation… the Italian Benetton clothing brand could be considered Supreme Provocateurs.  With a long history of placing shocking photos in ads since they were one of the hottest brands in the late 80s with stores around the world, Benetton’s UNHATE campaign follows suit closely.  The campaign features fake photos of world leaders kissing each other smack-dab on the lips. The nemeses include President Barack Obama and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas. France’s Nicolas Sarkoczy and Germany’s Angela Merkel – and another one of Obama with China’s Hu Jintao.  But it was the Vatican who raised the biggest stink about the image of Pope Benedict kissing Egyptian Imam Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb.

Due to the pressure from the Vatican, the ad above and others were removed from publications and walls immediately – almost as if Benetton were expecting it.

While it can not be said that sensational imagery and provocation are new for Benetton, their choices for imagery and “partners” in support of the Unhate Foundation they began leave a bit to be desired. If the foundation is all about tolerance, they are truly pushing people’s buttons and boundaries for it.

If they were serious about an ongoing campaign, it wouldn’t make sense for them to select imagery that would force removals in a day.  I get how they are trying to provoke, but perhaps the action in the images took things to an extreme that don’t make sense for the cause.  Love is not the opposite of hate, indifference is.  If they were really trying to get people to think in terms of not hating, why not show the leaders in a sports stadium rooting for the same team?  They could have done a better job promoting unity or friendship as the opposite of hate – not a vulgarity like this.

Back in the late 80s when the brand was actually much more popular, they were doing the provocative images, but they had a bit more “street cred.”  The images were eye-catching and once you knew that the image was related to the “United Colors” of Benetton, it was more understandable.  At this point, it seems like a misguided attempt to grab some of that old glory.  Campaigns like this might generate momentary buzz – like they are receiving in the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and the BBC – but sometimes the flash is too quick in the pan, and this could be one of those time.

By taking quite a stretch, the more you’ve got to have behind it to support the reach.  As a brand, you can provoke, but you’ve got to weigh that provocation against what you’ll get in return.  With how much the world has changed since Benetton first started provoking the world with shocking photos, you’ve got to wonder what they were thinking.  With the saying “no matter how much things change, they remain the same”, the only thing here that’s remained the same is the type of response from the vatican.

“We are sorry that the use of an image of the pontiff and the imam should have offended the sensibilities of the faithful in this way,” Benetton said in a statement.

If anything, we’re sorry that Benetton felt they would not get a response like this or that they are surprised they offended the sensibilities of the faithful.  It is unclear who Benetton’s audience – or faithful – are with this campaign. The provocation begs the question of how much is too much and when is it right to provoke just for the effect of provocation.  Time will tell if this helps bring the brand back or if it ends up kicking it further into obscurity.  At this point, it provides that uncomfortable feeling like seeing the rock star from the 70s or 80s making a comeback tour and – while their grandiose ego is the same – they’re performing in small pubs instead of arenas.