United Colors of Benetton have a 'colourful' history of advertising. Their brand was fearless, bold and controversial - but it was also ultimately human. This was something that managed to consistently ruffle a few feathers.
The controversy always seemed to stem from one man. The maverick art director for the brand,Olivier Toascani was fearless in his approach to his subjects. Known for eschewing market-research and looking down at ad agencies - he was instrumental in building Benetton into one of the world's most recognisable brands. Their image was his to nurture after he was given full creative control, "Everything we do is about impulse, about guts," he once said. People are attracted to passion - who could argue with that?
His provocative adverts include a baby (umbilical cord still attached), three raw hearts with 'WHITE', 'BLACK', 'YELLOW' written over them and a nun and priest kissing. Of course the message here is straight-forward - everyone is equal. 'United Colors', get it?
Naturally, his images have garnered a wide range of feedback, tending to be on the superlative end of the scale. His ads were either seen as disgusting and repulsive or ground-breaking and artistic. Personally, he thought that discomfort was where true art should exist. He once quipped that "I think the rain is uncomfortable. But try making that argument to a fish." Each to their own indeed.
Working as art director at the label from 1982 to 2000 his aim was to tell a story of the moment in history he was living. This kind of social commentary is very rarely utilised by brands, but the thinking behind it was simple. He could take photographs more creatively inspired than he could have done as a photojournalist, all the while still giving his images, and therefore the brand, a platform to be seen.
Two occasions stand out in his time at Benetton. Firstly there was the AIDS campaign. In 1993 he used a colorized photograph of dying AIDS patient David Kirby as he was surrounded by his loved ones in a melancholic yet melodramatic scene that wasn't too far off from a religious painting. It caused an uproar, but the family of Kirby defended it, "We don’t feel we’ve been used by Benetton, but rather the reverse: David is speaking much louder now that he’s dead, than he did when he was alive." If there was any opinion that mattered, it should only have been theres. The photograph is iconic and went a long way in humanising the misunderstood and maligned disease.
People thought that he has pushed boundaries with that campaign, but he wasn't done yet. The final campaign before ending his relationship with the brand was shot over a 2-year period and cost $10 million dollars. His expenses were known as lavish - he was quite the artiste. The campaign features 26 death row prisoners from all over the United States staring into the camera.
The campaign titled, 'Looking Death In The Face' provoked an outlash from the relatives of those who had been killed by the people captured in the photographs. The families came together and lobbied hard. Benetton lost some major contracts and from then on struggled to make the impact they previously had in the market.
It's hard to grasp now, in a time when advertising is so devoid of such depth and impact, just how substantial their ads were. There are still adverts that make us talk, but they're soft, with rounded edges. They're conversation-starters but inoffensive. Where's the fun in that? Toscani often seemed to wonder.
As with many of his images, this controversial campaign was a protest. Previously he had touched on the ill effects of war, the crushing implication of racism and the conservative religious ideals that influenced national behaviours. This time it was a protest against capital punishment. When asked about the campaign, he had this to say, "I don't have to justify myself. Controversy is very useful. It's up to the other side to justify the shit they do. It is almost a Third Reich vision in these prisons". His renegade style was so abrasive that he even understood that companies might lose customers over it. He was happy though - as long as he challenged us.
It's hard to argue with his intentions. There are few people around like him that are willing to take these sorts of risks. The issues might get raised today by people with a similar platform - but those tweets will quickly be deleted, the drunken comment quickly redacted and a donation-as-apology made. No one would build an entire ad campaign on such inflammatory ideas as he did - certainly not with such openness.
His great genius is maybe highlighting that we see these issues as inflammatory in the first place. If war is okay - the mindless killing of innocents, or if rabid homophobia still pervades society - why can't he take relatively benevolent photographs to give people a shake, to make them re-evaluate their preconceptions? He did though, and he faced a lot of backlash. This often came from people more willing to protest his ads rather than the issues they raised. Take from that what you will.
The world needs more people like Toscani - creators willing to put their neck on the line. There's a lot of change that still needs to be made, yet no one is willing to make it. If his photographs were released again now, they'd still be just as controversial. What does that say?
Regardless if you respect the issues that he raised or not was never the point. The point was always that these issues should be open for discussion. It's in this space that people can understand their desires and prejudices better - it's here that change is made.
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