But it's not the message itself that has generated controversy; it's the way Benetton has done it. It has created an ad campaign that some say glorifies convicted murderers. The state of Missouri sued Benetton over the ads, and Sears cancelled its contract to sell Benetton clothing.
Also angry are the families of those who had been killed by the stars of those ads. Vicki Mabrey reports on the uproar and the man who started it all.
John Peebles had always opposed the death penalty.
Then 13 years ago something happened to change his mind: Inside a convenience store in Raleigh, N.C., William Quentin Jones shot and wounded a cashier and then murdered Peebles' son, 33-year-old Ed Peebles, who was sipping coffee inside the store. Ed Peebles left behind a large family, including a wife and a young daughter. For 13 years, John Peebles has been waiting for North Carolina to execute William Quentin Jones.
Peebles was outraged when he saw the face of his son's killer staring back at him in a Benetton advertising campaign.
"I think Benetton is interested in selling clothes, and they do whatever they think it takes to do it," Peebles says.
The man who conceived the campaign is Oliviero Toscani, who for 18 years has been the creative director of Benetton. Toscani created the company's United Colors campaigns.
Almost everything he does for Benetton creates a furor. His campaigns have included many images that seem designed to shock: a baby fresh from the womb, a black stallion mounting a white mare, a dying person with AIDS and a priest kissing a nun.
But nothing compare in audacity to the death-row campaign. No Benetton clothing is on display. The ads are there to denounce the death penalty and arouse compassion for the inmates waiting to die.
"I just wanted to discuss the fact that they were waiting to be killed by a cold-blooded system," says Toscani, who maintains the state is even more brutal than the murderers. "Any serial killer is an amateur compared to state of Texas."
Toscani says he feels sympathy for the families of murdered victims and doesn't doubt the guilt of death row inmates. But in Benetton's catalog of killers, Toscani and his team never asked the inmates why they killed, or if they'd kill again. Nor do they offer any details of the crimes committed.
Viewers never learn that one of the featured prisoners, Conan Wayne Hale, killed three teen-agers in Oregon, or that in a racially motivated crime Jeremy Sheets kidnapped, raped and murdered a black teen-ager in Nebraska.
And the ads do not explain that Jerome Mallett killed a state highway officer in Missouri. But they do hear Mallett bemoan the fact that he's going to die. In the Benetton spots, Jones talks about the food he misses most, including his mother's homemade biscuits.
Toscani says he isn't trying to elicit compassion for these killers. "I don't think that's the point," he says. "But still, they're still human. So what (do) we do? I think that's the question. Are they animals? We're to fry them, as somebody said, 'Fry them; get rid of them.' Or do you have to think a little further?"
Some mainstream advertising veterans are offended by Toscani's work. "To try to sell sweaters over basically the dead bodies of murdered victims is in the worst taste and in the worst possible judgment," says Jerry Della Femina, an veteran adman.
But for Toscani, advertising must move beyond selling. "It's the height of cynicism to consider people just consumer(s), to sell people fake dreams, to tell people that if they buy a certain product, they will look beautiful."
Toscani prefers anarchy, he says. He is probably one of the world's few jet-setting anarchists and one of the richest. He owns a ranch in Tuscany, where he often rides one of his herd of pure-bred horses.
When not riding, he can be found in Paris, where he keeps an apartment, or in New York, where he is redesigning Tina Brown's new magazine, Talk, or at Benetton company headquarters in Italy, where he's perpetually in motion.
Toscani is attempting to create a new style of communication: a stew of art, journalism, social commentary and the kind of advertising that spends big money to argue a point and not to sell illusions, he says.
Benetton is a very successful company: It supplies sportswear and accessories to 7,000 stores in 120 countries, including the United States. Worldwide Benetton's profits are up. But in America, the number of stores is down, from a high of 700 in the 1980s to 200 today
Reacting to complaints about Toscani's death penalty campaign, Sears cancelled its contract to sell Benetton clothing. Toscani shrugs off the lost business. "Probably it's good," he says. "Sears is an old company. We need a more modern partner."
Earlier this year, Toscani's boss, Luciano Benetton, said he wasn't worried that Toscani's campaign has cost him business. But not long after Benetton said that, Benetton and Toscani parted ways. Benetton denies firing Toscani. And Toscani says he wasn't pushed out and that he wanted to leave.
Even though he is no longer at Benetton, Toscani says he will persevere. He imagines a world where companies use advertising to improve the world. He provides an example of what he would have liked to have happen during World War II.
"I wouldn't have minded that during the Nazis, Volkswagen would have done a campaign against Nazis," he says. "Would be great, right, if Volkswagen would have done that in 1940."
Toscani sees his own campaign in similar terms: "One day they might look back on Benetton and say, 'They understood.'"