Equus or Excess?
The new Benetton ads plastered on downtown construction sheds a couple weeks back -- a black stallion mounting a white mare -- are meant to evoke "innocence and truth," according to the prepared statement of company Artistic Director Oliviero Toscani. Maybe for him.
Like most fashion spreads, this one's shot in a completely fabricated setting, against a blank backdrop, the horses standing fetlock-deep in a weird-looking substance that resembles dried up strings of shaving cream. The presumed mare (the genitals of both animals are hidden from view) has kohl-ringed eyes and exudes a luded-out ennui worthy of Kate Moss. The stallion's flowing mane is plastered with enough mousse to address the styling needs of a major urban neighborhood, and he looks as if he's struggling to complete a particularly unpleasant bodily function.
As with its previous "issue" ads (the dying AIDS activist, the bloody shirt of the dead Bosnian soldier, ad nauseam), this image is being rolled out worldwide. It appears as a double truck in the Oct. 3 Rolling Stone and the October Spin. The precise dollar figure of the ad buy is a company secret, but North America Ad Director John Poerink called it "a pretty considerable communications budget."
Why a black stallion mounting a white mare? "It's not black," Poerink shoots back, "it's brown." Like the entire image, those meanings -- if there are any, he hastens to add -- are "open to interpretation." (In Toscani's own "interpretation," the horse is black.) And why this species? Is "hung like a horse" a global concept? we ask. Poerink laughs, but offers a much more demure explanation. Toscani likes horses. He owns the mare and stallion, which are part of a string of appaloosas he breeds on his farm in Tuscany. (Appaloosas in Tuscany -- a natural outgrowth, we suppose, of buffalo mozzarella.)
Time and Newsweek both turned down the ad, Poerink reports with a mild puff of artistic indignation, because they thought it was "vulgar." Not at all, he says, "rather than ... merely sticking pretty women in pretty clothes," Benetton hopes to raise themes "related to social issues or sometimes communication."
We prefer the more succinct analysis offered by an anonymous scribbler who wrote across the corner of one of the posters on Third Street near Harrison: "Sex sells."
A Sad Ending
Just when it seemed that coverage of the 1993 Polly Klaas murder had demonstrated every possible example of tawdry excess, the youngster's convicted killer, Richard Allen Davis, and her father, Marc Klaas, provided local media with one more excuse to abandon sober reporting in favor of emotional hyperbole. As anybody who glanced at a newspaper or passed near a TV or radio last week is aware, Davis used the occasion of his formal sentencing in a San Jose courtroom to suggest that Polly Klaas had been molested by her own father.
The charge was shocking, twisted, cruel, we were told in news stories that in some cases shamelessly slid into partisan rooting. But most important -- as every news organization also carefully reported -- it was, according to both the prosecutor and the chief investigator in the case, utterly unfounded. Why then splash it across Page 1 and use it to lead the evening newscasts? (OK, forget the local newscasts, they're beyond journalistic shame on this story.)
But what seems so striking about the print accounts of the events in the courtroom last week is how much they depended on the volatile interaction between Davis and Marc Klaas to justify the play of the story. The front-page portions included vivid descriptions of Klaas lunging at Davis and shouting obscenities as deputies ejected him from the courtroom. However, readers who followed the story to the inside pages learned that prior to any word from Davis, Klaas had delivered his own rather excessive diatribe in which he suggested that the only honorable way out for Davis was to commit suicide and then likened him to Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy. Once upon a time, a judge might have had the fortitude to rule such inflammatory language out of bounds, but in an era of political hysteria over victims' rights, apparently, anything goes.
The dirty little secret of the Polly Klaas story has nothing to do with Davis' baseless charge. It has everything to do with how profoundly uncomfortable reporters covering the story are about their relationship with Marc Klaas. Was there ever a more obliging source? No emotion was too raw, no subject too indelicate for him to share with viewers and readers. He was simply too tempting to turn down. The price was an inability to explore legitimate concerns about the investigation and prosecution of the case; and last week's courtroom spectacle was the unhappy payoff.