safi thomas

My advice to all for the New Year: Let every act and word and deed be framed as though at this very moment you will take leave of your life. What would you say if you knew you would never speak again? What would you do if you knew you would never be able to do it again? We act as if we’re going to live forever. This ineptitude causes us to do very selfish and short-term thinking. We can do better. Think about the long-term efficacy and subsequent impact of your actions on the future. Happy New Year!!

Safi A. Thomas

Artistic Director

The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory

My Thoughts on Benetton Ad

Recently on Facebook, I posted a link to a new Benetton ad which depicts world leaders kissing eachother I said, “Beautiful! Well played Benetton. Well played.” Here are some of the reactions I received and my responses.

First Reaction (paraphrased): This is disturbing!

Second reaction: "Beautiful. Well played Benetton. Well played?“ Can you explain this campaign ad to me? What is beautiful or well played about this photo? What is Benetton promoting in these advertisements?

My Response: The beauty is in the message. The solidarity and brotherhood of all nations. 

The heterodox manner in which they articulated their message is purposely crafted to incite discourse. They’ve done their job. Major leaders have all been apprised of the ad. They’ve sent a message clear across the bow of the world’s leaders by presenting them with a discussion piece.

What makes it "disturbing” are our paleolithic ideas regarding gender and sexuality. This bias blindspot is being exploited by this ad and then raises questions about our own belief system and core values. Any advertisement that sparks discourse has done a beautiful job! Any advertisement that actually makes us think and question has done a beautiful job! Any advertisement that pushes us to discuss it with others has done a beautiful job!

I think that anyone who can spread their message without it being filled with vitriol, bias and ignorance is deserving of praise. They definitely did their job, because the world is talking about it.

Third Reaction (paraphrased): The image is contrived. Why couldn’t the kiss be in a zone that’s not sexual?

My Response: Our perception of an image is shaped by our worldview. 

A kiss is not “sexual.” A kiss is a form of endearment that is shared worldwide across multiple platforms of interaction (approbation, respect, homage, valediction, gratitude,welcome et al.) It is western ideology that has skewed our interpretation of kissing, the human form, gender and sexuality. 

Before and during biblical times, it was quite common to kiss others on the mouth (both men AND women.) Kissing on the forehead was actually reserved as the highest honor. I think kissing on the hands was introduced by the Persians and then inculcated into European society during the 17th century.

Yet I say all of this to say that “kissing” is only sexual if we interpret it that way. 

The world is not as close minded, backward and unable to assess nuance as we may think. Of course the world leaders and those who represent them will not like it. It forces discourse. It pushes the envelope of how we see ourselves. As Benetton stated themselves, “The images are very strong, but we have to send a strong message. We are not wanting to be disrespectful of the leaders … we consider them "conception figures” making a statement of brotherhood with a kiss,“

I do not see it as forced nor contrived. Again I think that it allows people’s biases to manifest and they must then either deal with them or defiantly ignore them by deflecting onto the ad’s depiction of male leaders kissing. 

I think we have a responsibility as men and women to recognize the negligible actions we take in the name of nationalism and egocentrism and open ourselves to more positive discourse while expanding our worldview. This ad is a great benchmark to that end.

Fourth Reaction: It’s a disrespect, I don’t recall seeing ads like this for Bush, they have called Obama a monkey , terrorist now they stoop to an all time low and have him kissing someone other than his wife on the lips , ps: he has kids ask your self what will his kids think?

My Response: You are conflating the GOP’s anti-Obama sentiments that they perpetuate throughout their constituency with Benetton’s desire to spark discourse. This is not about Obama. He is not being targeted, nor disrespected. He is a world leader. The ads are representative of ALL world leaders.

Before thinking about the individual person, we are being called to task to think of the countries they represent. So when looking at the two ads with Obama’s image, we are seeing The United States and Venezuela (not Obama and Chavez) or The United States and China (not Obama and Hu Jintao.) The word UNHATE is the largest thing on the ad. It’s about redirecting the discourse between our nations to one that is not filled with rhetoric, banter and vitriol. 

Our reactions are more a reflection of our own biases than they are of the ad’s intentions. Obama’s children are intelligent, forward thinking and have a much more broad worldview than most children thanks to their parents. Therefore the ad will have no impact other than to get a chuckle out of them. 

Americans are often quite adept at deflecting when called to task. Which is what is happening with this ad. We focus on the fact of two men kissing instead of recognizing the fact that the majority of the world’s leaders are men. We focus on Obama, but not the representation of the problems being articulated relative to the two countries. 

The reactions thus far nationwide show that many of us are ill equipped intellectually to peruse this ad beyond the scope of sexuality because for the most part, our ethos is narrow and cyclopic. What we see when we look at the ad is more a reflection of our character than it is of their intentions.

Fifth Reaction: As a gay man-and very open minded, this campaign does very little for me.I saw the pictures a while back, and dismissed them because they were obviously photoshopped. I appreciate their efforts, but it’s not my cup of tea. I just can’t take the campaign seriously. Hit me with a HEADLINE or Satire or wit, this is something quite frankly I wouldn’t pay any attention to.

My Response:  If this "does nothing for you” it is because of the context within you are viewing it. Our perception shapes our understanding of the world around us.

The platform for world discourse is multitiered. Headlines, satire and wit alone do not do the job in this digital age where we are inundated with imagery. To grab people’s attention you now have to have shock value. 

Unlike many of the advertisements that we see, this one is geared towards sending a message. A powerful one. 

Wit and satire aside, look at the impact. It got the attention of the world leaders. The message worked! Now there is an international response. They have reached them in a way that we all wished we could reach our government representatives. 

They have presented world issues in a way that is accessible to anyone. 

The ad also raises other issues that are pervasive within the social construct of our nation. Like anti-gay sentiment (which is rampant in our country), our paleolithic understanding of gender and sexuality, our lack of understanding of heteronormativity, our ignorant notion of thinking of a kiss as sexual not understanding the context and history of the act, the issues of patriarchy (which are made evident by the amount of men in the pictures and only one female leader.) The ad is a lot deeper than a simple kiss between men. 

Hatred is convoluted in its discourse and requires something equally shocking to wake people up. It is important to view things outside of our narrow worldview and expand our understanding of the social and cultural paradigms that are present throughout our community.

Sixth Reaction: But what about his kids why cant he have the rights that I have or you , how would you feel if they made a crazy ad with your pic without asking you , you would sue them and i would to.

My Response: Once we become a public figure, our “right to privacy” is rendered moot. Especially at that level. Satire, warped images and using your image as the leader of a nation are expected and par for the course.

Again it’s about the message. The message they’re sending is far more important than one man’s discomfort. As I said above, his children will be fine. They are more worldly and intelligent than the common American and will easily traverse this with dignity. 

Again our reactions nationwide are reflective of our personal biases, not a reflection of something being wrong with the ads.

The images are very strong, but we have to send a strong message. We are not wanting to be disrespectful of the leaders … we consider them "conception figures” making a statement of brotherhood with a  kiss,“ -Alessandro Benetton

We think we are owed something because of our age. Ageism is the pinnacle of our benightedness as an older generation. We think we are owed respect, owed recognition, owed remuneration and yet conversely expect the younger generation to earn our respect, earn our recognition and earn remuneration. It’s quite paradoxical but also typical of us as men.

It is important to leave something of value for the next generation of dancers. It starts by making something stable, loving, and intelligent for yourself. We must understand our duty to the next generation. Who they are is what we made them. So instead of being parents complaining about your children, look in the mirror.


Safi A. Thomas

Artistic Director

H+|The Hip-Hop Dance Conservatory