ROME – For the second time in less than a week, iconic Italian clothing maker Benetton withdrew an ad from its so-called “un-hate” campaign that shows world leaders kissing, the latest after criticism from the Vatican over an image showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing a leading Muslim cleric.
The offending image showed Benedict with his lips pressed to those of Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque. Four days earlier, an image showing former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi locking lips with German chancellor Angela Merkel was withdrawn after Berlusconi resigned amid controversy and economic worries.
Other ads in the campaign show U.S. President Barak Obama kissing Hu Jintao, the president of the People’s Republic of China, another showing Obama kissing Venezuelan leader Huga Chavez, one with an image of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il kissing South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a kissing embrace with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. All the ads carry a simple tagline reading “Un-hate,” Benetton’s logo, text indicating that the company supports the Unhate Foundation, an organization Benetton founded to “increase tolerance worldwide.”
On the ad featuring Benedict and Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi criticized Benetton for exploiting the image of the pope.
"We must express the firmest protest for this absolutely unacceptable use of the image of the Holy Father, manipulated and exploited in a publicity campaign with commercial ends,” Lombardi said in a statement. “This shows a grave lack of respect for the pope, an offence to the feelings of believers, a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people by attracting attention with provocation."
Benetton, which is no stranger to controversy, apologized and said it was sorry the image “hurt the sensibilities of the faithful.”
In the past, Benetton has been the subject of lawsuits in the United States for a campaign showing death row inmates, and it has cultivated a reputation for provocative ads that have shown, among other things, a priest kissing a nun, a close-up of a dead Bosnian soldier, another of a man dying of AIDS, and a black woman breast feeding a while child.