Oliviero Toscani, Master Provocateur, Returns to Benetton. And Not a Moment Too Soon

The planets have finally aligned

The legendary art director's new print ads may seem tame compared to his classic work, but his anger is palpable.

There was a time when one could only love or hate a Benetton ad. There was no in-between. And much of that was due to its art director, Oliviero Toscani.

If you don’t remember his name, maybe the work will ring a bell. Between 1982 and 2000, when he led the brand’s advertising identity, this is the kind of work he gave us:

Even by today’s standards, it’s puzzling stuff for an Italian clothing company that sells mid-priced basics. But its goal was to start a conversation bigger than a bottom line, in keeping with something founder Luciano Benetton once said: “The purpose of advertising is not to sell more. It’s to do with institutional publicity, whose aim is to communicate the company’s values.”

Toscani took that to heart. His work for Benetton has taken on racism, religious strife, politics of all kinds, and even AIDS—most notably in “Pieta,” a 1991 photograph featuring activist David Kirby, Jesus-like, dying in bed while his father, sister and niece watch.

Now, Toscani is back. Like Steve Jobs returning to save Apple’s eroding reputation, the art director, now 75, is taking Benetton’s creative reins back during the most politically fraught time in this generation’s memory.

And not a moment too soon. Benetton, post-Toscani, has remained empowering but relatively safe, and its bottom line reflects an inability to express what once made it so special: It suffered a net loss of €46 million (around $54 million) last year.

Toscani’s political streak hasn’t waned with time. Of Brexit, he says, “The only contribution to Europe that Britain has made is the language.” It was in the U.K., he claims, where his ad of a newborn baby—umbilical cord and all—was most controversial. “If it had been a puppy, it would have been ‘Awwwww, a puppy!’”

Below is the first work he’s produced since returning to his art director role. It features 28 children in an Italian elementary school, all of different ethnicities … and all wearing Benetton.

“There were 28 schoolchildren from 13 different countries and four different continents,” Toscani explains to the Guardian.

To Women’s Wear Daily, he elaborates more forcefully, giving the work a scope that touches on politically charged racism and even the current refugee crisis—both topics that today’s advertising addresses with cockles-warming regularity.

“You better look at them well; it’s not bullshit,” he says. “It’s not a fake priest with a fake nun; this is news for any newspaper today. I think the big problem of society today is integration. If you don’t understand the huge problem of integration, we are going to miss the point. A company like this lives on integration, we are present worldwide, we have to understand everybody. All this kind of discrimination, racism is ridiculous.”

We can feel the passion there, even if the work feels more muted than what he’s done in the past.

Below is a campaign video. The theme of the campaign is integration. “Integration is a major issue in our world today,” says Toscani. “The future will hang on how, and to what extent, we use our intelligence to integrate with others and to overcome fear.”

In early 2000, Benetton released an ad campaign called “We, on Death Row.” No company merchandise was present in any of the creative featured.  The spread consisted of photos of various death row inmates from a Missouri state prison. Published in Benetton’s “Colors” magazine, the images were accompanied by articles about their childhoods, feelings about death, dreams and families.

A 2000 press release on the Benetton website explained, “Leaving aside any social, political, judicial or moral consideration, this project aims at showing to the public the reality of capital punishment.”

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