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.”

The campaign resulted in a worldwide banning of Benetton ads, including in the U.S., where journalists and pro-death-row groups (usually an unlikely pairing) were livid. Families of the death row inmates’ victims issued press releases claiming Benetton was glamorizing murder.

Toscani interviewed the inmates on his own over the course of two years. Of the campaign, he expressed his feelings thus: “We will look back at this kind of justice one day and we will consider ourselves very primitive.”

In comparison, the shot of multi-ethnic children, sporting Benetton gear in a single photograph, feels tame. But maybe that says more about the times we’re in than about Toscani’s evolution. While Toscani took risks—his photo of a nun and a priest kissing appeared beside the Vatican in 1991—he nonetheless claims his work in past was more about issues, not shock.

“When we talked about AIDS, it wasn’t controversial; it was the reality,” he tells the Guardian, referring to his photo of Kirby.

It’s partly because of Toscani that I personally pursued advertising in the first place. “Somebody who buys a top model and uses them as a symbol is making a social political choice,” he once explained. “It’s actually more extreme and eccentric than mine. Hitler wanted Aryans. That’s what they do with Claudia Schiffer, those fashion companies. That’s what fashion magazines do. I call them the Fourth Reich publishers. You get all the rich and beautiful. All the alienated have to disappear. Style and culture magazines are like that, and so you are going to have a society that is intolerant.”

Even after Benetton, Toscani—born in Milan in 1942, when Italy was under fascist rule—maintained his belief in the importance of exposing the uglier sides of industries who peddle glamour for profit. In 2007, for Milan Fashion Week, he used a photo of anorexic model Isabelle Caro, then 25 years old and just 68 pounds, to promote the “No Anorexia” movement.

It hurt to look at. Caro died three years later.

We’ve finally arrived at a point perhaps equal to Toscani’s convictions. But as illustrated by those smiling children in his current offering, the maestro of ad land controversy is surprisingly more optimistic than most. “There used to be color and magic,” he tells the Guardian, “and we are going to put the magic back.”

A second image from the same currently running campaign features the children surrounding a teacher, reading Pinocchio. It may look innocuous, but it isn’t—not to Toscani, anyway. “This is our Bible, our Messiah; Pinocchio is fake news,” he tells WWD. “Fake news has always existed, but nobody realized it.”

Today in advertising, Toscanis are a dime a dozen. The difference here is that, idyllic first-campaign photos aside, we can still feel how angry he is, how determined he is to fix societies that—Instagram prayer-hands aside—stubbornly refuse to live up to their empathic potential.

We can’t wait to see what he brings to the table.

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