Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Visual Culture - Benetton's Breast Feeding Campaign

Visual culture: An analysis of a Benetton campaign

Toscani, O. (1989) Breast Feeding Benetton Campaign
Visual images, as a means of communication, have influenced the development and evolution of societies since ancient times. Visual imagery is not just about the image itself, it is about the hidden meaning it transmits by reflecting society´s values, beliefs and codes. This critical essay, will argue that visual imagery is a powerful tool for conveying messages, specifically in a context of an advertisement image. Analyzing an image from a Benetton campaign, (see figure 1) this essay will explain the denotation of the image; how the message is transmitted and the meaning of the hidden values in the image; and will discuss the success of the image.
Beginning with the denotation of the image, (see figure 1) the above photograph shows several elements such as: a black woman feeding a white baby. She is wearing a red sweater, which is contrasted by the green Benetton logo. For the description, it is essential to consider the visual technical components such as: style, aesthetics, technique, texture, lighting, style and vantage point that were used to fashion this piece and transmit the message. (Rowse, 2010) 

The main characters are set in a frame with a white background. Their position is natural and real, it is the perfect scene, a mother holding a baby in her arms, but what makes it uncommon is the dissimilarity in their skin tone. The choice of lighting creates noteworthy effects on the models such as: highlighting details, shadows and textures on their skin. This vantage point of the cropped image portrays just the front side of the woman, specifically showing her breasts and not her identity. This is not uncommon in advertisement; showing anonymous identities (Piller, 2002). It is apparent that the green Benetton logo is located in the upper right side of the composition for a reason, to reinforce the statement and tell the viewer, this is not just about the product itself is more about the message we want to convey.
The effectiveness of the image in figure 1 is the result of revealing postmodern symbols. Seeing the picture generates a huge impact and an intense emotion on the viewer. The initial idea behind this image was equality and interracial harmony. (Petenji and Kovačević, 2010) Nevertheless, this image generated controversy worldwide because it connoted different meanings depending on the context where it was released. A black woman feeding a white child symbolizes the myth of slavery as ‘black slaves used to breast-feed children of slave owners’. (Petenji and Kovačević, 2010, p.5)  This generated a strong impact in countries where slavery took place; particularly in the UK and America. These lead us to different layers of meaning.

Another important point is the spatial placement of the characters.  Their position in a rectangular frame without showing any identity; symbolizes the inability of expression, freethinking or even existing similar to slaves who had no human (and expression) rights. (Back & Quaade, 1993) The center of the viewer’s attention goes directly to her right breast because it is exposed.  To contrast this, the photographer intentionally placed a white baby being fed by the left breast to gently direct the viewer’s attention moving their eyes throughout the image. The photographer generated more attention by locating the logo in the right upper side of the image, to reinforce the idea that a white baby is been fed. The position of the woman’s hands may transmit religious connotations, of a Virgin Mary carrying Jesus. However, the photograph reveals the texture of her hand as natural as possible, symbolizing hard work and suffering while the baby has tender, soft skin. The symbolism of red, as suggested in the sweater of the model, is of vitality and energy but it may also be interpreted as aggression and suffering. 

Figure 2 Noble, M. (2012) 'Breast is Best' Campaign in NYC Locks Down Baby Formula

A related image (see figure 2) is compared to figure 1. This appears to have the same content but it conveys a different meaning. The usage of clear elements is seen, it shows a mother and child with the same skin tone; the blue color used in their clothing symbolizes dependence, commitment and tranquility; and the spatial placement of the models is of caring and resembles the infinite love and connection between them; the mother’s face is shown. On the contrary, in figure 1 the model is caged without showing her face.  Overall, figure 1 conveys a meaning, which is aiming for controversy and social awareness; figure 2 does not.

The success of the Benetton image is acquired by the implicit ethical values it transmitted about social stratification and power, ethnicity, gender and language, by creating shock among societies. This controversial image generated a strong impact by the representation of a postmodern equal society using a multi-racial image. That is to say, societies are constantly bombarded with visual imagery on television, newspapers, billboards, Internet and other means, without even noticing it or analyzing the social values behind them. (Freedman, 2003) It may be determined that people absorb information daily; actively and passively, becoming part of our daily lives. Visual imagery can be argued as being subjective, in which every person interprets and processes information in a different way; therefore, multiple meanings arise.

This critical essay has presented the power of visual imagery and how it has influenced postmodern societies. The presentation of the Benetton image, a black woman feeding a white baby, is not just superficially and vague, but it is making explicit the controversial hidden meaning by reflecting society´s issues and ideologies. It has also described the image using technical visual elements including: style, technique, texture, lighting, and vantage point and the construction of the narrative and the composition. Additionally, it has analyzed the symbolism of the codes and myths the image is connoting, such as slavery, despite the fact that black-slaved women fed white children. In conclusion, visual imagery tells more about a society and it is the most powerful weapon to convey ideas. 



Back, L.,& Quaade, V. (1993). Dream utopias, nightmare realities: Imagining race and culture within the world of Benetton, Birmingham:University of Birmingham

Freedman, K. (2003) Teaching visual culture, New York:Teachers College Press Columbia University

Noble, M. (2012) 'Breast is Best' Campaign in NYC Locks Down Baby Formula

 Petenji, S. and Kovačević, J. (2010) Demand for/ Consumption of Culture Advertising Photography, (the city is not provided):Proceedings of Informing Science & IT Education Conference (InSITE)

Rowse, D. (2010)  5 elements of composition in photography. ( [Accessed August 15, 2012]

Toscani, O. (1989) Breast Feeding Benetton Campaign
[Accessed August 10, 2012]