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