The White House on Thursday slammed a new Benetton advertising campaign showing US President Barack Obama kissing Chinese and Venezuelan leaders smack on the lips.
"The White House has a longstanding policy disapproving of the use of the president's name and likeness for commercial purposes," spokesman Eric Schultz said, speaking of the adverts which have also triggered a protest from the Vatican.
The ads, unveiled on Wednesday, show photoshopped pictures of Obama kissing Chinese President Hu Jintao and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
The controversial ad campaign has already prompted an outcry from the Vatican over another picture in the series showing Pope Benedict XVI kissing Egypt's Ahmed el-Tayyeb, a leading imam.
Benetton's portrayal of the pope, the Vatican said, "is wounding not only to the dignity of the pope but also to the sensibilities of the faithful."
The Vatican said it was taking legal action against Benetton despite the Italian clothing company agreeing on Wednesday to pull the photo, saying it was "sorry that the use of the image had so hurt the sensibilities of the faithful."
The posters appeared in Benetton clothing stores across the globe as well as in newspapers, magazines and on Internet websites, with the company defending its "UNHATE" ad campaign as meant "solely to battle the culture of hate in all its forms."
One picture showed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smooching Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. In another, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is depicted in a liplock with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Benetton became famous in the 1990s with a series of shocking ads. One depicted a young nun in white kissing a priest dressed in a black cassock, and others addressed important issues such as AIDS, homosexuality, hunger, refugees and war.
An earlier use of Obama's image for commercial purposes angered the White House in January 2010, when a jacket manufacturer put up a large billboard in New York's Times Square featuring the president wearing the company's dark jacket while on a visit to the Great Wall of China during an official trip.
"A leader in style," the ad said.
The White House complained, and the ad was removed days later.
The White House was not able to say whether administration officials had been in contact with Benetton.