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Why I Can't Love Benetton's Unhate

When USSR's Leonid Brezhnev kissed East Germany's Erich Honecker in 1979, that was a kiss. When Obama kisses Hu Jintao, that's just an ad for Benetton. It only serves to remind us that the revolution will not be photoshopped.
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When USSR's Leonid Brezhnev kissed East Germany's Erich Honecker in 1979 that was a kiss. When Obama kisses Hu Jintao that's just an ad for Benetton.

It is a comment on history, but without understanding the history.

For starters Brezhnev really kissed Honecker. Communist iron men were prone to these smooches unlike their more cowboy counterparts on the other side of the Cold War. They were secure enough in their masculinity -- all those pogroms and tanks rolling into town squares surely helped. But when a graffiti artist recreated that "Fraternal Kiss" on the Berlin Wall, it became a symbol of protest, the desperate lip lock of a doomed love affair, a sort of death spiral. It was named The Kiss of Death and under it was the slogan "God, help me survive this deadly love."

In 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev came to the GDR. He got the kiss as well. Honecker was a serial kisser when he wasn't terrorizing his own people. If you go to the DDR museum in Berlin which curates odd bits of East German life, you can see that kiss splayed out on an entire wall. But in 1989 it was a protocol kiss. The Cold War was ending and passions had cooled. As the blog Lite Strabo describes it "This one actually meant 'my friend, you are alone.' Less than one year later, GDR had ceased to exist."

In 2011 in Benetton's version of the united colors of Unhate, Obama kisses Hu Jintao. Chavez kisses Obama. The Pope kisses an imam. Only Manmohan Singh doesn't get to kiss Zardari. Benetton apparently considered an Indo-Pak kiss but deferred it because of cultural sensitivities and political backlash.

But it doesn't matter anyway because it's not real. Or remotely based in reality. The image is no longer so important because countless digitally manipulated images like these one (and far more provocative ones) circulate every day on the internet. The only reason it is "jaw dropping" is that a major clothing company like Benetton is behind it instead of some graphic designer with too much time on his hands.

The only shock value left in those photoshopped images is the fact that it's men kissing men. Ironically a campaign that is about "Unhate" is based on a wellspring of homophobia, relying for its impact on the yuck factor -- a viewer's gut level revulsion to the idea of men kissing men.

And even there Benetton chickened out. Alessandro Benetton said the images were meant to promote the idea of "unhate" ("which is not as utopian as love") and should not be seen in a physical or sexual context. Except the only reason the ads work (if they work at all) is precisely because they are seen in a physical or sexual context.

In a strange way the only kiss that actually has resonance is the Angela Merkel -- Nicolas Sarkozy kiss because that's the only one rooted in any kind of reality. There have been plenty of images out their of their awkward "shall we hug, shall we kiss" dance. The Benetton kiss is a cheeky consummation of the unlikely couple's odd romance. We can imagine that kiss and it makes us squeamish.

The idea of Unhate as opposed to universal brotherhood and world peace is provocative. It is in its own way the end of John Lennon's Imagine, dialing down that dream to something more prosaic. But the images are not provocative. As they flash by on subway walls and billboards, they are at best quaint.

They only serve to remind us that the revolution will not be photoshopped.

However we can all go retail shopping instead.

A version of this blog first appeared on

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