Blogs & Comment

The Vatican has only made matters worse for itself

By reacting to Benetton’s Pope-kissing-imam ad, the Vatican turned a publicity stunt into an international news story. Now everyone’s seen it.


(Photo: Benetton)

On the one hand, the Vatican’s complaint seemed to have worked: Clothing company Benetton pulled its ad featuring Pope Benedict XVI passionately kissing top Egyptian imam Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb. On the other hand, the Vatican’s public reaction, and subsequent announcement that it would pursue legal action, turned a publicity stunt into a bona fide international news story. And now, of course, the picture is everywhere.

In the ad business, it’s called earned media, or sometimes free media. The company does something newsworthy—often through controversy—and journalists write about it. People talk about it. Well, mission accomplished—and then some.

Another term, the Streisand effect, refers to a phenomenon in which a person or organization tries to suppress information and, in the process, inadvertently draws more attention to it. It’s named after Barbara Streisand, who, in 2003, tried to have an aerial shot of her mansion removed from a publicly available collection of photos. Her lawsuit failed and the story, along with the image, spread around the Internet like wildfire.

The Vatican appears to have Streisanded itself.

Nonetheless, it’s keeping the fight alive. Despite the fact that Benetton immediately withdrew the ad following the complaint, and apologized, the Vatican said in a statement that it will still “take the proper legal measures” to stop use of the doctored photo. It remains unclear, however, whether or not the Vatican will be suing Benetton for damages, a move that could spur even more news stories, directing additional attention not only to the brand, but also to the image the Vatican no doubt wishes would disappear. Alas, it’s part of the Internet now.

(And speaking of the World Wide Web, the Vatican really should invest in a site redesign; its current one is a labyrinth of brown and beige, parts of which look like they were designed in 1995.)