Monday, August 16, 2010

The Not-so-hidden Persuader

Comedian Luca Rizo, a fair-skinned performer from northern Italy, once started his routine at the San Remo Music Festival – Italy's most watched television programme – with a joke about Benetton. He complained aloud that he had had a tough day. ‘I came home unexpectedly early and caught my wife in bed, making love to a black man and an Asian man at the same time!’ Rizo exclaimed. An accomplice in the audience shouted out: ‘What did you do about it?’ ‘Oh,’ Rizo said, nonchalantly,I took a photograph and sent it to Benetton ... you never know, right?’
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A joke like that would be lost on someone clueless about the advertising campaign of Benetton. And for those who are familiar with the consistently irreverent campaign, it needs no explanation.

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It is no mean achievement for the ad campaign of a clothing company to generate a joke capable of being understood and enjoyed by a whole generation. And that is exactly what Oliviero Toscani , the mind behind the controversial ad campaigns of Italian clothing maker Benetton for eighteen years from 1982, succeeded in.
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The ads that Toscani created in the initial years for Benetton were tame by any standard. His first campaign for Benetton in 1982 used teddy bears (Wasn’t that predictable!) to model the children's clothing line. The next several campaigns were equally forgettable. But soon enough, he started being provocative in an effort to make a memorable impact with the campaign.

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By 1984, the campaign had already started turning political with the ‘All Colors of the World’ theme that focused on young people of different races wearing the company's clothing. It was the first time such a multicultural group appeared together in such a positive light in an Italian advertising. But Toscani was just getting started.

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In 1990, he launched the ‘United Colors of Benetton’ campaign which tied in well with the depiction of white and black people (and animals) in striking situations. The campaign consisted of a series of jarring and controversial ads that the man and the company became known for. It is hard to justify some of the themes except that they all reflect the conscience of photographer Oliviero Toscani. How else could you connect a garment manufactured and a priest kissing a nun; or a bloody baby fresh from the womb; or a black stallion mounting a white mare; or a colorful mix of condoms spread over a bright background; or a white infant suckling a black woman's breast; or the exposed pulsing hearts of three different races or the body of an AIDS victim moments before death; or the frightened refugees clawing for food at a ship's cargo net; or the bloody uniform of a dead Bosnian soldier.

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It is clear that Toscani went straight for the jugular, period. And the ads grabbed attention. Which is what they’re supposed to do. Due credit must, however, go to Luciano Benetton who allowed Toscani a free rein to use the company's massive advertising budget imaginatively, confronting the public with difficult issues. Each topic provoked debate and usually some limited protest, all the while raising awareness of the Benetton brand.

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Many labelled Toscani's work as seeking to shock merely for the sake of shocking. Indeed, since 1990, no Benetton product even made an appearance in a significant ad campaign, and yet the company's style and logo became etched into consumers' minds. Toscani, in his life and in his work, seemed to enjoy making people feel uncomfortable - whether friends, politicians, corporate heavyweights, or potential customers. That was a charge the creative relished.

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Benetton and Toscani were a classic marriage that is far better than the sum of its two parts. Toscani was a fund of talent and Benetton had its niche in the clothing world. Together, they were formidable. And they were no strangers to controversy around their ad campaigns.

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Toscani will probably be best remembered for the headline-grabbing campaign based on photos and information about some 26 death row inmates from six US states. The ‘We, On Death Row’ campaign was aimed at drawing the world’s attention to the controversy surrounding the use of capital punishment in the US, where support for the death penalty is as unequivocal as opposition to it is in Italy. The campaign featured close-up portraits of convicted killers. The photos are stamped with the words ‘Sentenced to Death’ or ‘We, on Death Row’ along with the small green Benetton logo.
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The campaign stirred up a storm of controversy: the state of Missouri sued Toscani and Benetton for misrepresenting themselves while interviewing four death row inmates in that state. Protests from uneasy consumers and from the families of the inmates' victims prompted retailing giant Sears, Roebuck & Co., to unceremoniously drop the profitable Benetton line. That hit the company where it hurt – its bottom line.
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The Missouri lawsuit was settled when Benetton agreed to write letters of apology to the four Missouri families whose relatives had been murdered by the inmates in the ads. The company also donated $50,000 to the Missouri Crime Victims Compensation Fund. The official line from the company is that it stands by the campaign but regrets causing pain to the families involved.

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In the opinion of the unrepentant Toscani who had earned a reputation for both arrogance and drama, the ‘We, on the Death Row’ was his best work during his long tenure at Benetton. ‘Most ads are forgotten immediately, and even good ads are forgotten after six months,’ he would say. ‘Ten years after the ad, if people still remember it, that's immortality!’

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Even as the campaign faded from the public consciousness and became a chapter in advertising history, a satisfied Toscani had no regrets. ‘How can I feel regret toward something that increased the visibility of an important topic, of the company involved, and of myself?’ he asked.

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The divergent stand taken by the unapologetic Toscani and the contrite Benetton spelt the end of the partnership. Quite like the parting of ways of Benetton and Sears, Roebuck & Co. debilitated the toplines of both, Benetton and Toscani had to pay the price for the ‘divorce’ – and the advertising world was rendered poorer.
- Facts and images courtesy internet and websites

2 comments:

anilkurup said...

Post well done. And informative.
Lurking in unpleasant and inconvenient topics and controversies
are bound to unleash such unpleasant end.But that is ones choice and courage to touch unpleasant topics.
Toscani was, I feel convinced about what he wanted to convey. However as an ad man who's brief was to promote the product, he must have been more circumspect the way he went.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

An unusual post on your blog, I found it both interesting and informative. The question that comes to mind is what was the main thing and what was the spin-off - the company's sales or the awareness the campaigns would have created?

BTW, the "United colors ..." campaign that we saw in India was a pretty much watered down version of the original.