Benetton Pieta in AIDS campaign

United Colors of Benetton ventured into controversial territory in 1991 with the publication of “Pieta”, a photographic expose of the reality of AIDS. The photo of AIDS activist David Kirby was taken in his room in the Ohio State University Hospital in May 1990, with his father, sister and niece at his bedside. The photo was taken by Therese Frare. Frare included the black and white photograph in a photographic documentary on the lives of clients and caregivers in a hospice for people with AIDS. The photograph was included in LIFE magazine in November 1990, and went on to win the 1991 World Press Photo Award.

David Kirby dying of AIDS, photographed by Therese Frare

Tibor Kalman, working with Oliviero Toscani, was preparing a consciousness-raising campaign associated with Benetton products and culture. He saw the Frare photograph in Life Magazine and suggested that Benetton include it in their advertising campaign. Benetton approached the photographer and Kirby family, gaining consent for the use of the photograph and contributing to an AIDS foundation. When considering whether to stay with black and white or go with color the creative team decided that it needed to look like an advertisement, raising the shock value.

David Kirby dying of AIDS in Benetton Pieta print ad

The ‘Pieta’ ad certainly had an effect.

On one hand the advertisement won the European Art Director Club award for the best 1991 campaign and the Houston International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award. The print was exhibited in American, French, Italian, Swiss and German museums. In 2003 the photo was included in the Life magazine collection ‘100 Photos that changed the world’.

There were many negative reactions however. A number of AIDS activists believed that the photograph and its use in advertising actually painted AIDS victims in a negative light, spreading fear rather than acceptance. Others perceived the campaign as a vindication of homosexuality. For some there was sensitivity about the implied connection between the deaths of David Kirby and Jesus.

David’s parents, Bill and Kay, took part in the press conference called by Benetton in the New York Public Library and while the world’s opinion of this image remained split between accusations of cynicism and approval, and many magazines had already refused to print it, David’s mother said: “We don’t feel we’ve been used by Benetton, but rather the reverse: David is speaking much louder now that he’s dead, than he did when he was alive.”

According to Benetton, “In some countries such as Paraguay this was the very first campaign to talk about AIDS, and in many countries it was the first campaign to go beyond purely preventative measures and touch upon subjects such as solidarity with AIDS patients.”

Toscani said, “I called the picture of David Kirby and his family “La Pieta” because it is a Pieta which is real. The Michelangelo’s Pieta during the Renaissance might be fake, Jesus Christ may never have existed. But we know this death happened. This is the real thing.”

Michaelangelo's Pieta sculpture

  • mike thomas

    I don’t remember where I first saw the ad or when but I can say it broke my heart and continues to tug at me even now. Michelangelo’s Pieta, The Pieta of AIDS and The Pieta of 9-11 have a profound effect on me.

  • George Calotti

    This is the first time that I came accross the photo of David Kirby although it was taken back in 1990.All I can say is that it has changed my life. The expresions on all the phases on the photo are shocking.We must all do whatever we can to fight against AIDS.

    • Yar

      STOP having SEX with multiple partners would decrease the incidence alot.

  • Oli Sandler

    I’ve been looking at advertisement for a exam in the mass media and stumbled across this advert. Now, I can see how it is an effective photograph for how much we should research and exterminate AIDS and HIV, but I am confused about how this is an advertisement for a clothing brand. In my opinion this says two things:
    1) Toscani was looking for a platform on which to launch his work, saw that Benneton were looking for an advertisement campaign and saw his chance.
    2) Benneton at the time were lagging behind in the market and becoming a ‘dull brand’ and almost fading into the background. Therefore they needed something to make them distinctive, and when Toscani approached them saw THEIR chance.
    In no way am I insulting the picture, its participants or people it has affected. I just feel that this is an innapropriate canvas for shocking, thought-provoking work to be displayed on.

    • mfl

      i am very much in agreement. that is to say; i don’t think it could have been said better!

  • Luca Toscani

    I don’t understand why a touching sad photo like this should be used as an advertisement. Shame on these people. I’m sorry because my last name is Toscani like the famous benetton photographer

  • rachel

    yo mama

  • Amber Berglund

    I agree with Oli and Luca. While this photograph is compelling and provokes emotion, it’s probably in bad taste to use it to sell clothes.
    After all, David Kirby is dead…and his death is being used for marketing.

    It’s like, “buy and wear United Colors of Benetton…look fashionable as you watch your brother die from AIDS.”

    I don’t know what or why United Colors of Benetton uses these photos that do not have anything to do with their clothes.
    It’s like they’re trying to glamourize human poverty and misery…
    These photos lead a person to believe that they are a responsible company, but are they? Do they use sweat shops? I don’t know what they actually do for impoverished nations. Do they make clothes from GE Cotton crops?

  • denise

    I think this advertisement actually made ppl take a second look….. and realize the effect of AIDS….. its a strong and straight forward advertisement…
    Y ppl think that a photo like tis can’t be used in adv?? In my opinion as long it bring out the good effect, it is a good move….
    but i agree wit some of u that say it is not relevant with clothes…. other than tis is a good adv…my opinion at least…

  • Chris

    How can you say that Jesus Christ may have never existed? What a horrible thing to say! It is that statement that turns me off from this company! I just feel that this is a private moment that should not have been publicized. It is a bit over the top to use. Being gay is the fast road to AIDS anyway! Shame on them all!

    • Chris the Christian comments: “How can you say that Jesus Christ may have never existed? What a horrible thing to say!” He then goes on to say that “being gay is the fast road to AIDS anway! Shame on them all,” thus proving that Jesus truly doesn’t exist–at least to Chris.
      Outraged at the thought that the man of love might not have physically existed, Christ spews out his own hate. And this makes sense to anyone?
      The religious right–the ultimate oxymoron
      Chris the Christian–the ultimate moron
      Jean M. Davies Schmith

  • C Bryan King

    As a gay man with HIV, knowing that someday I may die just like that, it doesn’t offend me at all. Why should that offend any more than all the other marketization? I mean, when everyone pays companies for the privilege of wearing their logos, should we really be surprised when everything becomes part of market advertising? I commend them for taking a risk, because let’s face it, in 1990 that was a risk; granted, a calculated risk.

    • mfl

      the term ‘lost generation’ comes to mind. A numbness to many things, like advertising, that prevents the discernement of how to act/live life or conduct oneself. I think Benetton has made a colossal blunder in thinking that this type of marketing has anything to with what life is about. by life i don’t mean the magazine, and i also don’t mean anything i don’t mean! what i do mean is that compromising your soul is not the way to make an ad. the way to live is to regard the welfare of your soul is it it not? the body dies but the soul is eternal? i think this is what christ represented if we believe christ. ok one point for benetton for causing this…only one, as i would rather they thought about what i am talking about…

      • mfl

        ..and i question why there was even a camera in that room then…respect life and don’t compromise your integrity… maybe i am an integrity nazi…

    • Jesus loves you!

  • Lakia Jackson

    May God’ continue to be with this family,this is Heart Breaking to see. Unfortunately the Truth’ for lots of people.

  • A clear distinction must be made between the family’s geuine grief at their son’s death and the photographer’s ability – or luck -framing and capturing the image which is certainly doubly powerful, as a family member’s death and another death in a global epidemic.
    However, I am convinced the use of the photo for advertising and marketing is cynical and primarily driven for commercial profit irregardless of any high-faluting claims by Benneton. The family, may, of course, regard it as they like. But Benetton acted despicably.

  • Bryan

    I hate when people bring religion into any discussion. Religious people always use “god” as a crutch. Too bad there isn’t a god.

    • Are you kiddin’ me? God does exist! He is alive! But god of this world also exists. And there is a difference between religious people and Christians. Cos’ religion doen’t mean that you are living that….hope God will give you an opportunity and grace to let you know Him. 🙂 Cos’ when you feel Him there’s nothing more beautiful!

  • Rebecca

    I do not understand why people get so offended by work like this. It is art. The is real life and in the 90’s its what got people talking about AIDS which the world needed. It shocked people, it involved people wether they liked it or not and as a design student anarchy is what we need. How boring the world is without it. By all you people giving your opinion of not liking it.. it is exactly what Toscani intended.

  • Charlotte

    “It is cynical to pretend that problems don’t exist.
    Exploits a director who makes movies about concentration camps, the nazism to sell movie tickets? That’s a strange reasoning. We people must talk about our problems. Any occasion is good – even in commercials. Advertising shouldn’t be stupid and foolish, and instead of telling lies, it is time that the commercials tells interesting things. It is outrageous that you could sell by telling lies,” says Oliviero Toscani.

  • Robert

    I think your missing the point – people don’t remember the image of someone dying of AIDS, people remember Benetton which is the soul purpose of advertising – It is not bringing consciousness to people at all.

  • Donald

    Unprotected sex is bad.

  • jondaly

    it’s a great photo… a moving photo … and an important photo. but it’s a bit tasteless to use it to see clothes.
    and btw, some one should tell Toscani that Jesus existed. He live … was crucified … and died. it’s all part of the historic record. his resurrection is the only part up for debate. THAT’S a matter of faith. but he did live and die. most educated people know that.