When I read the other day about the new Benetton ads featuring manipulated images of world leaders kissing, I cannot say I was shocked. After all, this is the same company that brought us bloody babies and people dying of AIDS. Shock imagery is their standard operating procedure. So the picture of Obama kissing Chinese President Hu Jintao, which was the big controversy when I first saw the articles, was nauseating but not surprising. (Amusingly, the White House is pretending to be upset because of a "policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes" and not for the more obvious reason, that it looks like the Chinese president is totally dominating him in that picture.)
I apparently missed that, in addition to a host of political world leaders, the clothing company had included a pair of religious figures in its repertoire: the pope and Egyptian imam Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb. The Vatican sprung into legal action almost immediately, claiming (rightly) that the advertisement was "offensive not only to the dignity of the pope and the Catholic Church, but also to the sensibilities of believers."
It didn't take long for Benetton to remove the ad from its website, but what's the point? The image (which I won't share here) has already gone viral. In fact, searching for the above image of Obama, you are likely to get more results featuring the pope's picture than the president's. The company's purpose was, as always, to generate controversy; it has done so with tremendous success. In an era so jaded that very little shocks us anymore, you have to credit Benetton for having the genius to imagine giant pictures of the pope kissing a Muslim man and the chutzpah to make that imagination a reality.