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People are hating on Benetton’s new “Unhate” ad campaign

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Italian fashion brand Benetton is no stranger to controversial ad campaigns. Back in the '80s, their "United Colors of Benetton" campaign, spearheaded by photographer Oliviero Toscani, was a multiracial conversation-starter that touched on issues that had nothing to do with clothing, such as AIDS and abortion. A 1991 ad famously featured a priest and nun kissing, and now, launched in Paris today, Benetton's new "Unhate" campaign is stirring the pot once again. 

The campaign features a series of six photoshopped images of world leaders engaged in startling mouth-to-mouth kisses. The smooching pairs include President Obama and China's Hu Jintao, Obama and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestine's Mahmoud Abbas (perhaps the least likely pairing), North Korea's Kim Jong-Il and his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak, the Pope and Egypt's Ahmed al-Tayed, Sheikh of the Al-Azzhar mosque, and the lone heterosexual couple, France's Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel.

Benetton has also rolled out a guerrilla initiative to accompany the risky campaign, even after company lawyers acknowledged the possibility of adverse legal consequences, considering the global luxury brand's presence in 120 countries. There's no disputing the fact that the intended message is a positive one by Benetton, who are looking to kickstart their stagnant sales over the last decade. Over the same period, competitors like Zara, who have quadrupled their sales since 2000, have had much greater success.

Alessandro Benetton, deputy Chairman of Benetton Group SpA, said the inspiration for the ads came from a famous 1979 embrace between the Soviet Union's Leonid Brezhnev and East Germany's Erich Honecker. He explained the controversial campaign further:

"While global love is still a utopia, albeit a worthy one, the invitation 'not to hate,' to combat the 'culture of hatred,' is an ambitious but realistic objective. At this moment in history, so full of major upheavals and equally large hopes, we have decided, through this campaign, to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises particularly from fear of 'the other' and of what is unfamiliar to us."