A kiss to nowhere: Benetton's Unhate campaign

Obama kissing Hu Jintao? The pope kissing an imam? Benetton's Unhate campaign is being called sensational, jaw-dropping, provocative. But it's none of those.

Sandip Roy November 17, 2011 12:52:37 IST
A kiss to nowhere: Benetton's Unhate campaign

When USSR's Leonid Brezhnev kissed East Germany’s Erich Honecker in 1979  that was a kiss. When Obama kisses Hu Jintao in 2011 that’s just an ad for Bennetton.

It is a comment on history, but without understanding the history.

For starters, Brezhnev really kissed Honecker. Communist iron men were prone to these smooches unlike their cowboy counterparts on the other side of the Cold War. Thanks to all those pogroms and tanks rolling into town squares, they were already secure enough in their masculinity. But when a graffiti artist recreated that "Fraternal Kiss" on the Berlin Wall, it became a symbol of protest, the desperate lip lock of a doomed love affair, a death spiral of suffocating love. It was named The Kiss of Death and under it was the slogan “God, help me survive this deadly love.”

In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev came to the GDR.  He got the kiss as well. Honecker was a serial kisser when he wasn't terrorising his own people. If you go to the DDR museum in Berlin which curates odd bits of East German life, you can see that kiss splashed over an entire wall. But  in 1989 it was a protocol kiss. The Cold War was ending, glasnost was on its way and passions had cooled. As the blog Lite Strabo describes it  “This one actually meant ‘my friend, you are alone.’ Less than one year later, GDR had ceased to exist.”

A kiss to nowhere Benettons Unhate campaign

A portion of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin with a wall painting featuring the famous kiss between former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (L) and former East German leader Erich Honecker by Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel. AFP

In 2011 in Benetton’s version of  the united colours of Unhate,  Obama kisses Hu Jintao. Chavez kisses Obama. The Pope kisses an imam. Only Manmohan Singh doesn’t get to kiss Asif Ali Zardari. Benetton apparently considered an Indo-Pak kiss but backed away because of cultural sensitivities and the fear of political backlash. Why Manmohan Singh landing a wet one on Zardari would be more controversial than Pope Benedict making out with the Sheikh of the Al-Azzhar mosque is anyone’s guess. Probably Benetton's market surveys indicated not enough people cared. Certainly enough Indians accuse the prime minister of being too soft on the Pakistanis. It wouldn't have shocked them.

But it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s not real. Or remotely based in reality. The image is no longer so important because countless digitally manipulated images like these ones (and far more provocative ones) circulate every day on the internet. The only reason it is “jaw dropping” is that a major clothing company like Benetton is behind it instead of some graphic designer with too much time on his hands.

The only shock value left in those photoshopped images is the fact that it’s men kissing men. Ironically a campaign that is about “Unhate” is based on a wellspring of homophobia, relying for its impact on the  chhi chhi factor — a viewer’s gut level revulsion to the idea of men kissing men.

And even there Benetton chickened out.  Alessandro Benetton said the images were meant to promote the idea of “unhate” (“which is not as utopian as love”) and should not be seen in a physical or sexual context. Except the only reason the ads work (if they work at all) is precisely because they are seen in a physical or sexual context.

In a strange way the only kiss that actually has resonance is the Angela Merkel-Nicolas Sarkozy kiss because that’s the only one rooted in any kind of reality. There have been plenty of images of their awkward “shall we hug, shall we kiss” dance. The Benetton kiss is a cheeky consummation of the unlikely couple’s odd romance. We can imagine that kiss and it makes us squeamish.

The idea of Unhate as opposed to universal brotherhood and world peace is provocative. It is, in its own way, the end of John Lennon’s Imagine, sadly dialing down that dream to something much more prosaic. But the images are no longer provocative. As they flash by on subway walls and billboards, they are, at best, quaint.

They only serve to remind us that the revolution will not be photoshopped. However we can all go retail shopping instead.

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