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Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez and Pope Benedict XVI are all subjects in a new controversial Benetton ad campaign called Unhate.

An Italian luxury clothier is getting heat for an ad campaign featuring Pope Benedict XVI locking lips with an Egyptian imam.

The Benetton ads are in keeping with the company’s tradition of using unorthodox marketing and socially-conscious messages to sell scarves and sweaters.

The ads also include PhotoShopped images of President Obama kissing his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

There was no immediate comment from the White House.

But Benetton’s so-called “Unhate” ad campaign, launched Wednesday, generated an immediate and angry rebuke from the Vatican.

“This is a grave lack of respect for the Pope,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said of the photo manipulation that shows the Pope smooching Egyptian Imam Ahmed el Tayyeb.

Lombardi said it was not only offensive to the “sentiments of the faithful,” but “a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules of respect for people in order to attract attention through provocation.”

Benetton apologized, but has no plans to alter the campaign.

“We are sorry that the use of an image of the pontiff and the imam should have offended the sensibilities of the faithful in this way,” the company said in a statement.

On its website, Benetton explained that the “Unhate” promotion “invites us to consider that hate and love are not as far away from each other as we think.”

The ads also feature a photo illustration of German Chancellor Angela Merkel kissing French President Nicholas Sarkozy and videos riffing on the Arab Spring uprising and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“Our campaign promotes a shift in the balance: don’t hate, Unhate,” the company says on its web site.

In previous ad campaigns, Benetton has used an AIDS-afflicted man on his deathbed, a priest kissing a nun and a black woman breast-feeding a white baby.

Do you think Benetton went beyond disrespectful with their ad campaign? They HAD to know what they were getting into when they used the Pope’s image.


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