United Colors of Benetton Breastfeeding with Handcuffs

1989 was a significant year in Benetton’s advertising history. Creative director, copywriter, art director and photographer Oliviero Toscani produced a pair of photographs that established a precedent for another eleven years. Benetton, the Italian clothing company, had worked with Toscani since 1982 when he began work via advertising agency Eldorado.

Hands in handcuffs for Benetton poster

The ‘Handcuffs’ and “Breastfeeding” posters set out to develop a sense of common humanity that transcends skin colour. Not all were convinced about the wisdom of the campaign however. Some critics were concerned that the Breastfeeding poster in particular renewed the historical sense systemic abuse in the Americas in which slaves were required to breastfeed the children of white owners. Despite the criticism the Breastfeeding poster won awards in France (Cannes) and Italy.

Black woman feeding white baby for Benetton poster

See the United Colors of Benetton Institutional campaigns of 1989 to 2004.

Filed under: Benetton, Posters, Print

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  • mieoux

    I think you specifically have to be African American to tie the black woman breast feeding a white child to slavery and something oppressing. In many traditional societies including African societies a woman could breastfeed the child of another woman who was part of the family – if the society was polygamous or you had women in the village who could help other women and children by breastfeeding children who were not their own, maybe the other women could not produce enough or could not physically breastfeed – and sometimes some women just produced too much and some produced to little so there had to be a system to help both cases – it was an act of love when done within the family or an act of helping others or helping others while helping oneself with the realization that ultimately the entire community would benefit. In this specific situation of the black woman breastfeeding a white child I would say as important as their experiences are African Americans and former slaves are not the only black people on the planet today, even while acknowledging the effects of slavery, we should not deny things that had and still have meaning culturally for black people outside of slavery. In a flip – an American woman started a “charity” with American women donating breast milk to mothers infected with AIDS who had young infants in Africa, she was a white woman, the other women donors are of any skin tone – but it’s the idea of helping another child and another woman, of bringing them into your family, let’s include that when we think about these things.

    • ali

      in not African and I am offended. Its an insult to women- and above all else all, extremelty disturbing to me to see a black woman represented this way. She is Exploited- one breast for your pleasure, one breast to feed a capitalistic greed as symbolized by the baby. She has no identity, nothing but a tool.

      The men are a symbol of masculinity as it plays out in militarilization and humanitarianism (which is a form of imperialist agenda to promote the US and industrialize areas so the US Britian and China can use them!) The dressing of them in the same clothing attempts to erase class and race, and unite them in their male privlage in a righeous, and agressive way. It brings to mind incarceration of black male bodies, and the black body as one that is out of control and angry, needing to be controled by the white master.

      Doy… it’s right there. Open your eyes.

      • So you see all that instead of just a woman feeding a baby?

        Wow. And they say WE’RE racist.

        See, I look at that and I think “How beautiful! a woman feeding a healthy child showing love and nurturing.” or, after reading that it’s a ‘United Colors’ ad, I go back and I think, “Aww, I get it! Showing how color doesn’t matter with a black woman nurturing and loving a white baby. We’re truly all human.”

        But there’s always SOMEONE out there who can find the evil even in the sweetest and most innocent of images. But that speaks a lot more to what is in YOUR mind rather than that which is within the minds of everyone else. You have my pity.


      • smarter than you

        you’re funny.

  • mieoux

    I just remembered – if you have a half-white baby, she/he could look white especially within the first month so. Meanwhile immediately I automatically assumed she was breastfeeding another woman’s child, this could be her own child and how foolish will I look?

  • m

    too late…u already sound foolish. ads shouldn’t require that much stretching of the imagination, and you are clearly stretching. the ad is racist, period.

  • Lauren

    Oh, “m”, I’m sure that these bleeding-heart Liberal Colors of Benetton leaders wouldn’t dare let a little thing like racism into one of their photo shoots, eh? People, who the hell cares what baby is on what teat? That’s what they are there for and all the milk is the same color!

  • Carolyn

    I don’t see the big deal…what is really racist about it? I feel that we all know that the intention was not to portray that woman as a slave, that’s completely ridiculous. I think the fact that every person in America jumped to that conclusion is hilarious. It proves the existence of racism, that a person would immediately think that on first sight. Judgement at it’s finest.

    It’s an amazing photo, artistically speaking and not only for it’s cultural value. Making people think is often the goal of art.

    When I saw it I was wondering what had happened in both of their lives that had brought this situation to fruition.

  • k

    From a South African perspective…and just so I clear something for M…before the word RACIST flashing in his/her brain…South Africa being currently one of the most cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic tolerant countries in the world after banishing apartheid….yes…that was 14 years ago.

    So…my take on the breastfeeding ad of UCB is pretty much that its NOT racist as many domestic workers in South Africa did not only help keeping the house neat etc but they also took care of children and acted as ‘nannies’ as Americans call them. They took care of babies to the extent of breastfeeding them. As I understand it is a maternal instinct for a mother to take care of a child that is in despair/crying and so domestic workers took care of babies and their maternal instincts did come into play. What is racist is if a WHITE mother told a BLACK domestic worker that they are not allowed to breastfeed the child because they are BLACK. That is racist. In fact it sounds like M is racist because M did not consider the notion that maybe the black woman in the picture is married or the partner of a white man and the child she gave birth to is WHITE…which is very possible. So maybe after looking at all this we see that UCB actually suggest a unity and a mixed race marriage…which in my eyes should be perfectly fine.

  • elizabeth

    Not only is the ad racist, it is also mysogonistic–notice the woman had been decapitated–that’s right: where is her head? When only a part of a woman’s body is used in an image it is dehumanizing, making her a piece instead of a whole.

    • ISIS Avent

      What's really racist about it? There's nothing wrong with this pic.You are just stretching it.

    • ali

      Thank MF God someone sees the truth behind this viral ad. Anyone who doesnt see it needs to look again- its not hard. race,class, gender and sex are there to be manipulated by the media and used on you. Its not about you its about profit.

  • Yanniza

    Elizabeth, you’re just frickink crazy. Stop seen things that aren’t there! I’m a black – really black, much darker than the woman in the picture – and I don’t see racist in this picture at all. The point isn’t the woman. The point is COLOR DOESN’T matter. Humanity is humanity. People see what is deep within their souls.

    • s

      if you were an intelligent person you would notice that if you put a face to the woman the general idea of the woman would be lost and it would be THAT WOMAN instead of all besides how do you know it’s a male little baby??? I can’t say if it’s male or female…
      also if you were an inteligent person you would know that a pic doesn’t shows all that is there, where do you think is her head, walking in the park??? because it can’t be just above her body!!!! if you can’t notice-wich I doubt- the final part of this message is sarcastic

      this message goes also to “ali”

  • P

    Beautiful colors and contrasts. Beautiful symbolism. The ultimate in care, showing the need to care for each other regardless of race.

  • Arlene

    elizabeth is right on the money. It is offensive to me as a black woman. Too often in american history, a black woman was relegated to giving her physical body to whites in so many demeaning ways. This was just one of them. She was not given a choice of breastfeeding white children, and white mothers had just as much breast milk as blacks. But white women were too genteel to be bothered with such a menial task and it was relegated to black woman. Her body was too precious and needed to be preserved in every way. It reminds me of surrogacy today. Breastfeeding can cause the nipples to harden and change color and is often painful. Personally, it gives me the creeps to see another woman’s child feed of some other woman’s breast.

    A black woman wasn’t even given the right to keep what was inside of her body to herself.

  • KT

    I really don’t see anything racist in this picture. It shows in the contrary, that black women can take care of white babies without taking care of the colors, and also that white people are initiated since their birth to accept black people. And like Lauren said: all the milk is the same color.

  • Barbara

    I think that this picture is beautiful and that it should represent universal unity not racism, hatred, and disregard for the baby and the woman.You also have to consider that the woman is the baby’s biological mother and if she is not she freely chose to hold a baby of another color and race to her breast.(is that such a big deal?)

  • Don Zurly

    When I saw the picture, it did not strike me as racist. Truth be told, I didn’t even notice that the baby and the woman were of different races until the comments pointed it out. I think that illustrates a reality. As long as we are constantly reminded of racism by people who see it everywhere, and by government forms that ask our race etc, we will never evolve to a color-blind society.
    Regarding the mysogonistic aspect that Elizabeth sees – did it ever occur to you that a woman with a bare breast exposed on the internet, might not want her face seen by friends, neighbors, relatives and co-workers?
    People need to get a life and stop looking for evil everywhere. Look for the good, and you will be much happier.

    • Ali

      there is evil everywhere, as we see from this ad. People die over thier struggles for justice and the something like this appears and wins awards! Ads that just re-inscribe every sterotype and trope that continues to influence policies of goverment, and personal politics. People died for thier freedoms thus far, and we are still fighting! if you think everything is fine, look at the newspaper, and think about how little your children will have left-

  • Contrasts

    Elizabeth you remind me of a girl who i went to school with. The class was half white , and half black. We were in the gifted and talented program. She was black. She said very similar things. Both groups got bored with her rantings and whining and ended ignoring her completely. Good luck in life seeing danger around every corner, hate and deceit behind every smile.

  • hello, im graphics student.MA of iran i want informetion for my prose. it is aboat graphic design & advertising of Benetton of posters,billboard,stands,magazin…
    are you help me? thanks

  • What's really racist about it? There's nothing wrong with this pic.You are just stretching it.

  • What's really racist about it? There's nothing wrong with this pic.You are just stretching it.

    • ali


  • ali

    The above two photographs neatly package black femininity and masculinity. An excerpt from a paper that supoorts the RACIST and GENDERED, violent images above. Please note that humanitarianism and militarilization are best friends in the current world climate.

    Vouge Magazine’s audience is the middle to upper class white woman, and those who aspire to that kind of wealth and whiteness. United Colors of Benton is an interesting phenomenon of a company, and I’d like to segway from Cosmo to the controversial ads put out by UCB. UCB has a long and specific history in exploitation of otherness as its primary tactic of advertisement. The front cover of an ad which displayed a stereotypical scene of Egypt atc “We did not want our journey to be filled with snapshots of an antique land. Instead we wanted to re-discover out clothing in the context of a different culture. What is possible, we wondered, to express our style in an unaccustomed way, surrounded by Egyptian textures, even bathed in an ancient Egyptian light?” Hooks comments “Is this not imperialist nostalgia at it’s best-potent expression of longing for the primitive?” The two ads I want to refer to were released in 1989, and involve imagery of a black woman’s upper body, breast feeding a white baby, and the other is of two male hands in suits, one black and one white, handcuffed together. “The ‘Handcuffs’ and “Breastfeeding” posters set out to develop a sense of common humanity that transcends skin color. Not all were convinced about the wisdom of the campaign however. Some critics were concerned that the Breastfeeding poster in particular renewed the historical sense systemic abuse in the Americas in which slaves were required to breastfeed the children of white owners. Despite the criticism the Breastfeeding poster won awards in France (Cannes) and Italy.” The images were a sloppy attempt by UCB to advertize their company and present itself as a unifier, as a hegemonic system that offers variety, yet variety within its clothing’s bounds. It is interesting to note that the control the company has over its clothing line is synonymous with how the media creates psudo-individuality. This ad is a great example of how race, class, sex, and gender are represented in terms of stereotypes of black masculinity and black femininity.
    In the image of the woman, two things are happening. One is the fact that she has no face, no head, only breasts with which we can see both of; one on view and one with which she is feeding. Secondly, the baby not only references a “historical sense of systematic abuse in the Americas in which slaves were required to brestfeed the children of white owners” but also acts as a metaphor of capitalistic domination via conquering and colonization that continues around the world. Black women’s bodies are the site in which race; class, gender, and sex meet and converge, making this ad especially problematic. “When Race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other. (Hooks 23)” The fact that the ad received so much praise is a sign of how engrained in popular culture and racism really is. The exposed breast signifies the stereotype that a black womans body is sexually available at all times. Hooks writes “Bombarded with images representing black female bodies as expendable, black women have either passively absorbed this thinking or vehemently resisted it. Popular culture provides countless examples of black female appropriation and exploitation of “negative stereotypes” to either assert control over the representation or at least reap the benefits of it. Since black female sexuality has been represented in racist/sexist iconography as more free and liberated, many black women singers, irrespective of the quality of their voices, have cultivated an image which suggests that they are sexually available and licentious (Hooks 65).” Ideas of the black female as remaining sexually available pays out in music videos as well, as we have seen. This myth of black female sexuality as available directly relates to the woman’s lack of identity in the ad, as no respect is taken to acknowledge that woman’s individuality- her face is cut off, leaving only black flesh for the viewer and the reminder of black women’s history and current struggles against patriarchy and capitalism.
    If we look at the other ad, the one of the two males, it functions as a symbol of masculinity and power relations as they relate to race. This ad functions primarily in two ways; to somehow signify militarilization and at the same time humanitarianism (the two forces that remain central to neo-colonialism), and the hands symbolize action as most images of men work to do but the inaction almost eludes to an erasure of peoples struggles, erasure of slaving and class. They also represent the matching of privilege among men. Something a woman could never have acess to- the two men become united in their male privilege around the world. To be continued

  • AK

    Whatever the piture was not meant to be racist at all and i think you all are looking into something that it not there.UCB ads always have people of all walks of life in them.Take it easy people!

  • deedee

    a beautiful ad. why is everyone so sensitive? taking a first shallow glance it is ‘uniting colors’. black and white. I am from South Africa where blatant racism is ripe and visible daily. These images to me at face value and moving. They are breaking borders we shouldn’t have in the first place. The face that people are taking offense illustrates these barriers we have. Besides that, the face that it stands for something makes it more powerful.

    relax. if you dont like it. look away, and let the rest of us enjoy it.

  • denise

    come on….just relaxed….it is an advertisement…so it is up to the readers to evaluate and see it in their own point of view…but don’t overstretch your point of view until it hurts other ppl or may I say races feelings…I believe the ppl who made this advertisement won’t intend on creating a racial war among the blacks and the whites…
    look at it from an artistic point of view… two are a very beautiful pics… brings out the emotion and strong feelings…
    just enjoy it..

  • supporter of “p”

    Check out “p”s reply and see if you can argue with him

  • Catherine

    The baby could be adopted and infact her child. Would it be more acceptable if say it was a white woman feeding a black baby? And of course they don’t show her face. They don’t show the mens’ faces. Why is it okay on the male poster? She could be any woman, just as the men could be any man. Really people, making a mountain out of a mole hill. Breastfeeding is an act of love…atleast she isn’t handcuffed to the baby.

  • Re-play

    Art and advertising are both meant to evoke thoughts and emotions, thus, make changes.
    If indeed it’s done selfishly by a company for marketing, then let the observer be the judge on that.

    If we never think forward, we always be a slave to history. T-H-I-N-K.

    It’s free to think.

  • Aja Washington

    Well, taking ALL sides into consideration, and just looking at the ad with plain eyes to see it for what it really is, I have these questions: Why are both breasts exposed? When have you ever seen a woman feed a baby this way…one boob at a time…
    And why is she clutching the baby to her breast in such a cold unemotional way? Looks kind of robotic to me…?

    Maybe all these things were done to make the ad more impactful and ‘in your face’…obviously these ads were meant to shock in some form no matter how subtle.

    Art and advertising are not only made to evoke thoughts and feelings…Sometimes there is another agenda, like to de-sensitize or incite want for things people don’t need etc. Let’s not forget war propaganda, or those old cigarette ads aimed at children. Advertising is not as innocent as we all want to believe

  • angel

    This ad appears to be offensive to our fellow black sisters. Maybe if it was a white woman breastfeeding a black baby we would say its not racist. We have to consider what black women went through years ago, and we can’t keep on reminding them of their struggles. If this wasn’t racism, why did they pick a black woman? Why not a white, brown, yellow, or green woman since this is UNITED COLORS

  • Laurie

    I don’t consider this ad to be racist. Not at all. In fact, I believe that it’s just to show that we’re all the same, whatever colour of skin we are! For the breastfeeding picture, does anyone could try to understand that maybe this is her child, and consider that maybe the fathe is white so the child is white??!! I’m sorry if anyone is offended by that but it can be true. My cousin is black, her husband is white, she recently had a baby who turned out to be…. TADA! WHITE! So, hell with racism, hell with people who are closed minded and hell with ‘offensive’ bullshit! THAT AD IS BEAUTIFUL AND GIVES ME GOOSEBUMPS OF HAPPINESS!!! period!

  • H

    Would every person who’s commented about racism, still find this advert racisit if a white woman was breastfeeding a black infant?
    I certainly dont find this advert portrays a racist view or should offend anyone. It simply addresses the racist problems that some people unfortunately faced in those times and that now, everyone is equal and that we can demonstrate love no matter what out skin colour is.

  • Shannon

    I am carrying out a textual analysis of this breastfeeding as for my dissertation.

    For research I have looked up what Oliviero Toscani himself (the Benetton photographer) intended, and the ad is in fact NOT racist and its purpose is to erase the contrasts between black and white. Those offended; it just shows the REASON WHY awareness needs to be raised, so this racist offence is no longer caused.

    If anybody looked into it properly rather than making wild assumptions, they’d understand. Yes, it’s controversial, but Toscani expected that.

  • Artist

    This is am image about the beauty of service. The role of the ‘black mammies’ is still fresh, as many white grandmothers can recall and tell their adult grandsons about their loving ‘black mammy’. A lack of Understanding of the historical context and the current invisible, unacknowledged and inconvenient struggle of poor women of color, the ongoing role of ‘colored women’ as low paid service worker (ie ‘nannies’, housekeeper and agricultural workers) prevents many commentators from seeing more than the beautiful colors of red, ‘white’ and ‘black’. It really is a beautiful photograph. Yet, to ask colored women to just get over the historical relevance and shut up so that those who are so beyond historical racism can feel comfortable enjoying a headless black female body beautifully nurture a innocent white baby is insensitive. Had the photograph been of a headless white women nurturing a black baby, the uncommonness would have lead to a conversation on different conversation.