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Benetton Unhate Campaign: World Leaders 'Kiss' In New Clothing Adverts

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President Obama snogging Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez? Unlikely.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu smooching with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas? Never.

President Sarkozy cuddling up to German chancellor Angela Merkel... Actually, that one we could see. Somewhat disturbingly.

These images and more are all part of a new advertising campaign by clothing brand Benetton, who in an attempt to spark sales conversation have released six highly controversial images of world leaders engaging in some very close diplomatic discussions.

The 'Unhate' campaign, produced by Fabrica in cooperation with 72andSunny NL, is intended to promote a new way of looking at hatred, the brand says.

"It means not hating," Alessandro Benetton, deputy chairman of Benetton Group SpA, told the Wall Street Journal. "In a moment of darkness, with the financial crisis, what's going on in North African countries, in Athens, this is an attitude we can all embrace that can have positive energy."

[CLICK HERE TO SEE THE PICTURES]

Benetton said that the ads were inspired by a famous embrace between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker caught on camera in 1979.

"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," he said. "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.

"Ours is a universal campaign, using instruments such as the internet, the world of social media, and artistic imagination, and it is unique, in that it calls the citizens of the world to action."

Ah, that makes it clear. Not at all about annoying people for publicity then...

Or perhaps that's too cynical? Benetton certainly needs the boost. It is still seen by some as a brand stuck in the 1980s - and its most famous ad campaign to date ('The United Colours of Benetton') dates from that time even if it has dabbled in controversial ads several times before. Brand experts said that it's possible to be controversial, protect your brand and make a serious point at the same time.

"Sex, humour, fame, controversy – the latest campaign from Benetton has all the makings of that golden goal in the PR world: talkability," said Sam Oxley, managing partner at House PR. "It's been 25 years since the last 'United Colours of Benetton' campaign and since the brand's earlier heyday the baton has been passed on to other high street brands like French Connection with their FCUK campaign.

"It is a risky strategy that Benetton have taken but this is a great example of a brand creating something that is a global discussion point – which is no mean feat. Whether or not it will sell more clothes remains to be seen. But will it drive brand awareness? You bet."

Beyond its brand marketing troubles, Benetton has also faced difficulties shifting its merchandise. Last year its sales were barely 1.5% higher than they were a decade ago, according to the Wall Street Journal. That's compared to dramatic growth from some of its competitors, including Zara where sales were 4 times higher in 2010 than in 2000.

The 'Unhate' campaign is an attempt to turn that around. The company has recently hired a creative and manufacturing director (its first ever) and is attempting to focus its sales pitch and narrow its collection.

According to reports the brand has not asked the leaders involved for permission - unsurprising in the case of Kim Jong-Il, perhaps less so when it comes to President Obama, whose lawyers forced another brand (Weatherproof) to remove an ad featuring the commander-in-chief wearing one of their jackets in 2009.

Commenting on the latest effort from Benetton, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said: "The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes."

According to reports at least one major newspaper has refused to carry the ads.

Take a look at the images below, and tell us your favourites in the comments.

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