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Bosnia ad dips Benetton into debate again

The press release called him the Known Soldier.

Marinko Gagro, a Croatian college student, was shot and killed by enemy fire in Bosnia-Herzegovina in July.

A press release by Benetton, an Italian clothier, described Gagro as a student of agricultural science. He had needed to pass just two more exams to graduate. He had planned to marry his longtime girlfriend, Gordana.

Now Gagro is dead. But his memory lives on in a sometimes painful debate about whether an advertiser can go too far to link its name with a social cause.

In this case, it's a question of how far can Benetton go before someone _ the victim's family, for instance _ gets hurt.

Since 1989, Benetton has been notorious for using disturbing photos of various social crises in its ads, usually with no explanation but its logo. Some in the ad industry and news media have called the campaigns "shock advertising," although Benetton officially disapproves of the term.

Nevertheless, the ads have placed the family-owned clothier on the world map. Benetton's sales in 25 countries have doubled in the last few years, reaching 2.5-billion lira ($1.8-billion U.S.) in 1992.

But it is unclear whether Benetton's $15-million campaign, launched in mid-February, will help or hurt the clothier.

The campaign is based on bloodstained clothes _ the ones Gagro supposedly wore that fateful day. Print ads and billboards featured up-close, stark photos of a blood-drenched T-shirt and combat fatigues, a bullet hole clearly visible in the chest area.

At the top of the ad, written in Serbo-Croatian, is a message from Gagro's father: "I, Gojko Gagro, father of the deceased Marinko Gagro, born in 1963, at Blizanci in the province of Citluk, would like that my son's name, and all that remains of him be used in the name of peace and against war."

Benetton's press release announcing the campaign explained, "Marinko's parents mourn him with the dignity of those who do not wish to forget. His clothes, pierced and contaminated by the violence of war, await an explanation."

Gagro's father awaits an explanation, too, on different questions: How did Benetton get those clothes and do they belong to his son?

In an interview with Die Woche, a German newspaper, Gojko Gagro said last week that he never gave Benetton the clothes or the permission to use them. In fact, Gojko Gagro said, he never saw his son's clothes and had assumed a hospital had burned them.

"To have given them away would have been like selling the legs of my son," the paper quoted him as saying. The Reuters wire service picked up the story and distributed it internationally.

Gagro said he remembers giving a Red Cross worker a picture of his son and the letter, because the worker had said someone was putting together an anti-war poster campaign. Gagro also noted that his son had died from a head wound, not a chest wound as indicated by the bullet hole in the T-shirt.

Outraged, a German human rights group asked the government to investigate whether Benetton violated international law by allegedly exploiting the Bosnian war for profit, Reuters reported.

On Friday Peter Fressola, a Benetton spokesman, explained during a telephone interview from New York that there had been some miscommunication. It appears that Benetton's representative in Trieste, Italy, had obtained the clothes from the Red Cross and was informed _ incorrectly _ that the family knew they would be used in an anti-war ad campaign.

The other puzzling thing, Fressola said, is that the Gagro family was featured in a German TV news segment discussing the ad and, apparently, approving of it.

"It's incredibly regrettable that this happened," Fressola said.

Acknowledging that Benetton could have handled things better, Fressola defended its use of the photo as a way to enlighten the world about the Bosnian war.

"This image has gotten people to think and discuss (the war)" he said. "This image has the power to sensitize people and elicit sympathy in a way that the conventional media has failed to do."

On that front, Benetton has courted criticism in the United States. Henry Giroux, an education professor at Penn State University, last week accused the clothier of capitalizing on and sensationalizing tragedies for profit.

"When you get something as violent as an image of that sort and you de-contextualize it and de-historialize it and put a logo on it that says United Colors of Benetton, you cannot claim that it speaks . . . to the problems it is trying to address," Giroux said during a phone interview Wednesday.

"All it speaks to is Benetton."

Giroux has tracked Benetton's ad campaigns since 1990 as research for his book on pedagogy in advertising. The book, Disturbing Pleasures, will be published next month, he said.

The book discusses Benetton's other controversial ads, which sometimes stirred opposition from the very groups Benetton claimed to be helping.

For instance, there was the photo of a black woman breast-feeding a white baby, a scene that in the United States evoked images of slave women forced to wet-nurse their masters' children, often at the expense of their own.

Later Benetton used a picture of a dying AIDS patient as his grieving family surrounded him. That ad was criticized as exploitative of AIDS victims.

A photo of a priest and nun locked in a lovers' kiss stirred protest from Catholics. The super-close shot of buttocks with "HIV" tattooed on them led AIDS activists to charge that Benetton propagated homophobic stereotypes.

Giroux said Benetton tries to seem socially concerned to appeal to a youthful market, but its advertising images reinforce stereotypes and social conflict.

Fressola countered that Benetton merely puts its marketing where its heart is, in social issues. The ads are a "corporate image campaign" designed to make people think about society's wrongs while also thinking about Benetton, he said.

"Instead of showing another busty bimbo falling out of her blouse or creating a fantasy image, we choose to speak to the whole person in an intelligent, thoughtful . . . unconventional way that we think is socially real," Fressola said.

Benetton cares about the issues it portrays, he said. The company has contributed to an HIV education fund in New York; it printed 500,000 guides to safe sex for a teen magazine; it raised $100,000 for a children's hospital and $30,000 for a drug rehab center, both in Canada; and it collected 50,000 tons of used clothing for poor people, Fressola said.

"What is wrong with us doing well as we do good?" he asked. "I think Benetton is being more honest than most companies."

Benetton will not pull the Bosnian war ads because, Fressola said, they are due to end in a week or so anyway.