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AP - CHICAGO - Sears, Roebuck and Co. terminated its contract with the trendy Benetton clothing company Wednesday under pressure from victims' rights groups who objected to the Italian company's ad campaign featuring death row inmates.

Sears chairman and chief executive Arthur C. Martinez was ''outraged,'' as were many customers, at ads showing photographs of the inmates, said company spokesman Tom Nicholson.

The company ended its contract even after Benetton agreed to allow Sears to preview future ads. Sears had previously said it would keep the contract under that condition.

Sears has been weighing its decision to terminate the contract since it learned the content of the ads in early January, ''and it ultimately came to the point we felt this decision had to be made,'' Nicholson said.

''We have been hearing from people who have lost loved ones to some of the folks who have been profiled,'' Nicholson said. ''It's reopened wounds and brought back a lot of painful memories and people are hurt by it. They feel the (inmates are) glorified and the victims are ignored.''

On Wednesday groups picketed a Houston Sears store and Benetton's New York office. Hours later, Sears announced it would immediately pull Benetton-designed clothing from all 400 Sears stores that have been selling the Benetton USA line.

''The advertising campaign was inconsistent with what Sears has come to stand for and is inconsistent with the customer base we serve,'' said Nicholson. ''We have a high level of customer trust and loyalty, and there has been some strong emotional reaction to (Benetton's) campaign.''

The ads, which began appearing in magazines and on billboards late last month, feature portraits of American death row inmates in prison uniforms over the words, ''Sentenced to Death.'' The ads also give the inmate's name, date of birth, crime and expected method of execution.

Benetton officials said the ads were meant to raise awareness about the death penalty, but victims' rights groups said the ads glorified convicted killers and were insensitive to victims' families and friends.

''Everybody has the right to their opinion, but the ad campaign is not a social debate,'' said Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based victims' rights group. ''If it were, there would be balance.  This is not about the death penalty, it's about Benetton products. Benetton wants to spoon-feed the American consuming public their interpretation of social awareness, (but) we will regurgitate it.''  She said she has ''an absolute, utmost respect for Sears and their decision.''  Clements said Benetton was not a good association for Sears, which she said is an ''All-American store.''

Benetton spokesman Mark Major did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment on Sears' decision. But earlier Wednesday he said Benetton stood by its ads and believed it had succeeded in ''launching a national and global discussion on capital punishment.  This had nothing to do with apparel; nothing to do with the product,'' Major said. ''Benetton has historically approached social issues and we think it is important ... to engage people to think about issues.''

Benetton has made headlines in the past with ads addressing such topics as AIDS and racism. It also prompted protests from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1990s for ads featuring models dressed as a priest and a nun that were kissing.

Sears, based in the Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates, introduced the clothing line, called Benetton USA, last fall to help boost lagging clothing sales. Benetton made that line exclusively for Sears and continued to sell its United Colors of Benetton clothing in its own stores.


We have always believed that Sears would make the right decision and we 
applaud them for taking this action to show their respect for the families of 
murder victims who have been hurt by this campaign.


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Revised: October 01, 2000