Byline: Godfrey Deeny, with contributions from Sara Gay Forden in Milan

PARIS — Benetton’s controversial approach to advertising has stirred up more trouble for the Italian sportswear giant.
A French court Wednesday found Benetton guilty of exploiting AIDS “in a provocative manner” in a 1993 advertising campaign, and ordered the company to pay over $30,000 in damages.
The case stems from a campaign featuring photos of people branded with black lettering that read “HIV Positive.” The ads sparked an immediate outcry in France, as many here thought the shots clearly recalled images of Nazi concentration camp inmates with numbers tattooed on their bodies.
The National AIDS Federation and three HIV positive people — Erik David, Eric Eme and Elisabeth Da Paz — sued Benetton for defamatory advertising and breach of privacy soon after the ads appeared.
The Paris High Court instructed Benetton to pay Eme and Da Paz $9,600 (50,000 francs) each and David $11,500 (58,000 francs) in damages, and also ordered the firm to pay the National AIDS Federation $1,540 (8,001 francs) — one symbolic franc in damages and the rest for a breach of civil procedure.
The court warned the Italian company that it would be fined a further $9,600 (50,000 francs) if it attempted to reprint the offending ad. And it ordered Benetton to take out notices in three French daily newspapers — La Croix, Le Monde and Liberation — publicizing the decision. A spokeswoman for Benetton in Italy said the company planned to appeal, calling the decision “terribly unfortunate, in that the tribunal based its judgment on the worst possible interpretation of the campaign.
“It’s clear that a company that has been communicating for 12 years about tolerance isn’t going to put out a campaign in favor of discrimination. They focused only on the emotional side effects of the campaign and not on the positive things we have also done,” said the spokeswoman, citing Benetton’s funding of France’s Act Up when the group covered the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde here with a giant condom.
In its ruling, the court said that the right to liberty of expression in the French constitution had a limit, and that Benetton’s ad had “degenerated into an abuse.” “Evoking [images] of Nazi barbarism or branded beef… when no caption explains their sense constitutes, at the very least, an equivocal and questionable message which permits unfavorable interpretations about the causes of AIDS,” the court said. The fact that Benetton had previously supported research into a cure for AIDS did not make the message any clearer, the court added.
Benetton is currently involved in court cases in Germany with store owners who have refused to pay for merchandise because they claim Benetton’s other controversial ad campaigns have hurt their sales.