Benetton at 40

Having abandoned the controversialism of its youth in favour of comfortable middle age, Benetton has lost its sense of creative direction

In the history of attention-getting advertising, Benetton must surely deserve a place as one of the most effective companies ever to splash its promotional message across a billboard or magazine spread. There was a time when not a year would go by without some new outrage or controversy to set the pundits’ tongues wagging, usually in disapproval, and compel everyone else to take notice of what the knitwear giant was up to now. The company’s charismatic creative director, Oliviero Toscani, was able to dream up an apparently never-ending supply of jaw-dropping stunts and dubious provocations. Neither he nor his indulgent boss, Luciano Benetton, appeared to care in the slightest if people were upset or scandalised by the company’s latest campaign. The main thing for them, it seemed, was merely that we should keep talking about Benetton.

Then, in 2000, all this stopped. Benetton’s Sentenced to Death initiative about killers on death row was a campaign too far. It caused enormous offence in the US and Toscani resigned. If Benetton’s ads are still provoking heated discussion and calls to tear posters down from the hoardings, it has passed me by. It’s hard not to conclude that, without Toscani at the helm, Benetton’s corporate image is a shadow of what it once was.

Benetton is 40 and as part of its anniversary celebrations the multinational with 5000 stores around the world is putting on an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre staged by Fabrica, the “communication research centre” created by Toscani in 1994, when the uncompromising ad-maker could do no wrong. So it’s an opportune moment to revisit Benetton’s way of advertising and assess its achievements with Colors magazine and Fabrica.

Toscani, the son of a news photographer who took a famous picture of the dead dictator Mussolini hanging by his ankles, was no stranger to controversy even before be joined Benetton in 1982. His ad for Jesus Jeans, showing his girlfriend’s jutting behind in a pair of denim cut-offs, challenged the limits of acceptability in early 1970s advertising. For most of the 1980s, Toscani’s ads for Benetton worked variations on the theme of cheerful multicultural diversity, pairing boys and girls of different ethnic backgrounds to imply one big happy global family of brightly coloured jumper wearers.

In 1989, though, Toscani hit his stride. A picture of a black woman feeding a white baby had to be withdrawn after causing uproar in the US. Toscani and Benetton may have intended the image of promote interracial harmony, but critics were inclined to interpret it as an insensitive reminder of the way slaves had been used to nurse white babies. A later ad showing two little girls, one white and one black, was similarly ambiguous. The white child looked angelic; the black child’s hair had been formed into the shape of two devil-like horns. If Toscani was using irony to challenge people’s prejudices, many viewers were disinclined to give Benetton the benefit of the doubt. “The weakness of provocative symbolism such as this,” noted The Guardian, “is that it simplifies important issues into an image that doesn’t form a full statement.”

By this stage Benetton had discarded the idea of doing anything so obvious as showing the product. “It is not an attempt to be eccentric or provocative,” claimed Luciano Benetton in 1991. “It is an attempt to get away from traditional advertising in the belief that it has no power and no value anymore.” One ad presented rows of unwrapped condoms; another applied the principle of visual repetition to crosses in a cemetery. In one of Toscani’s most disturbing creations, an African mercenary held a human thigh bone behind his back. Other ads showed a nun kissing a Catholic priest, an electric chair, a burning car, black and white hands handcuffed together, and the bloodstained battle dress of a dead Bosnian soldier. Every ad came stamped with the green “United Colors of Benetton” logo and even a mucous-covered new-born baby attached to its umbilical cord could carry the brand.

In a close run field, the most controversial image was perhaps the photograph of AIDS victim David Kirby surrounded by his grieving family shortly before his death. Therese Frare’s black-and-white shot had already been published as a news picture. To make the image more dramatic – and more like an ad – Benetton added colour, giving it a slightly unreal, painterly quality. In Britain, the AIDS campaigner Terrence Higgins Trust called for a ban, describing the ad as offensive, unethical and in bad taste, while Elle, Vogue and Marie Claire refused to run it. “For the offended consumer,” noted The Sunday Times, “the only way to stop this madness is to vote with our cash.”

By contrast, Kirby’s family was reported to be pleased that the image was seen by many more people, as an ad, than would have seen it as a news photo. If the aim was to raise awareness of the suffering of AIDS victims and the need to fund research, then the campaign certainly caused a stir. Yet it soon emerged that Benetton’s commitment to such causes only went so far. In 1991, the company had turned down Terrence Higgins Trust when asked to sponsor a publicity campaign on the subject of AIDS in the family. “We do not envisage giving any money to AIDS research charities,” said Luciano Benetton. “People who expect us to do that are not being realistic.” Whatever the effect on sales, Benetton’s gestures cost it nothing since it would have spent the money on advertising anyway. If anything, the campaigns were inexpensive compared to the sums devoted to advertising by other global brands.

Toscani’s motivation was even harder to fathom. He was a hugely engaging figure able to drive by sheer force of personality the global communication policy of a hard-headed clothing manufacturer. Yet, sincere as some observers judged Toscani to be, his brash public statements often tended to implode on closer inspection. He declared that advertising had corrupted society and showed every sign of agreeing with advertising’s critics when he said, “It persuades people that they are respected for what they consume, that they are only worth what they possess.” Regardless of this, he chose to devote himself to advertising. He insisted that he wasn’t a salesman and, while this was strictly speaking accurate, his activities would hardly have been tolerated for 18 years if Benetton’s advertising campaigns had failed to benefit its sales. Whether or not he cared to admit it, or paid any attention to the figures, Toscani’s role was to sell clothes.

Toscani claimed to be a “radical libertarian” and, in 2000, he went even further and said he was a “total anarchist”. In virtually the same breath, though, he could declare “I don’t want to make the world better.” In that case, what was the purpose of ads that made a point of spotlighting violence, war, disease, racial prejudice and the (apparent) need for harmonious human relations? What was the use of trying to “broaden minds” – as a Benetton ad put it – and encouraging people to “think” if no positive outcome was intended? Did Toscani’s declaration of support for radical liberty amount to no more than a desire to be free to produce advertising that broke the mould merely for its own sake? If the “Sentenced to Death” campaign, showing sensitive portraits of the condemned, seemed to provide evidence of the man’s unusual compassion, not to mention his fearlessness as a social campaigner, why did Toscani then feel a need to cloud the picture by telling Arena magazine not only that he “couldn’t care less about the victims, or the victims’ families”, but that he “couldn’t care less about humanity”?

When critics drew attention to the fundamental difference between advertising and editorial comment, Toscani did everything he could to blur the issue. “Editorial is the advertising of the advertising,” he insisted. He professed to see no difference in our contemporary “culture of images” between pasta advertising and news reports from a war – “for me they are all the same”. It is hard to see such a statement as anything other than a profoundly nihilistic rejection of meaning itself. Benetton’s ads provided an early example of the erosion of clear distinctions between types of information – between sales talk and independent reporting and commentary – as corporations sought to gain attention for their products and enhance their brand images by establishing themselves in the viewer’s mind as content-providers in their own right.

The picture was complicated, in 1991, by the launch of Colors, edited by maverick American designer Tibor Kalman under the editorial direction of Toscani, who came up with the idea. Using the slogan “a magazine about the rest of the world”, Colors presented itself from the start as a natural development of the feel-good, multicultural corporate image projected by Benetton’s advertising campaigns. “The idea is a simple one,” noted an editorial in the first issue. “Diversity is good.”

While Toscani would later declare, with more than a hint of hubris, that Benetton was advertising for Colors rather than the other way around, Kalman took a more level-headed, tactical view. For him, it was a trade-off. If corporations had become the new arbiters of culture, taste and even ideas, then highly motivated infiltrators should take advantage of this otherwise regrettable state of affairs by using corporate money to fund progressive social messages. Kalman enthused about Colors as a “media experiment” sponsored by a clothing company, yet he acknowledged the problems pointed out by the company’s critics. “The media are subject to manipulation by the government, police, and business,” he told the audience at the 1993 International Design Congress. “I’d be lying if I did not say that media is subject to manipulation by Benetton, too. So to be responsible, those of us who work in the media have to tell people not to believe us. In the final analysis, it is the only honest course open to us.”

In Kalman’s 13 issues as editor, the pages pulse with an uncomplicated, joyful zest for food, artefacts, travel, entertainment, bodies in all their diversity, local customs, and the myriad “tribal” groups that people use to express their identities. Kalman took his compositional cue from advertising, kept the copy accessibly short and ran the pictures big. His special issues on AIDS and on shopping – $7000 for a black-market cornea; $41 for a landmine – still look powerful today. You could object to Kalman’s way of handling subjects as patronisingly simplistic (though this might just mean you were older than the typical reader) and refuse to ©      ß take seriously any editorial project underpinned by the intention to sell branded goods (though this was a peculiarly indirect way for a company to go about it). Yet these issues, viewed objectively, are a lot less “commercial” in their content and worldview than almost any newsstand consumer magazine. Their idealism and good intentions – naïve or not – are palpable.

Colors might not be seen as essential reading in the UK, but worldwide it has built a following. The quarterly outlasted Kalman’s departure in 1995 and Toscani’s in 2000 and this summer published its sixty-eighth multilingual, globally-aware, not-always-ecstatically-received issue. (“You are as frivolous as you are accomplices of the worst form of globalisation,” an email complains in Colors no. 54.) The themed issues art directed by former Pentagram partner Fernando Gutiérrez from 2000 to 2003 were particularly impressive. In an issue about madness, his restrained layouts emphasise the dignity of hospital patients in Cuba, Ivory Coast, Italy, Albania, Belgium and the US, shown in a series of superb portraits, many of them full-page bleeds. Although we might be inclined to feel that Benetton has once again exploited the suffering of others in the cause of promotion and profit, the project is not so easily dismissed. If it had been published as a book without the Benetton label, it would have been showered with praise.

Lately, Benetton has seemed less certain what to do with Colors. After a year in New York, trying to recapture the spirit of Kalman, the magazine returned to Treviso, Italy, home of Fabrica. Colors defaulted to Gutiérrez’s earlier format, but without the precision in layout and consistent quality of photography that he maintained. Increasingly, Benetton’s claims to creative leadership seem to rest with Fabrica itself, grandly described by Luciano Benetton in the Fabrica 10 book of projects, published in 2004, as “a laboratory where the communication of the future could be planned”. According to the Fabrica website, the institution, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is part school, part research centre and part “cultural reservoir”, though apparently Fabrica “doesn’t allow itself to be rigidly catalogued and homogenized”.

Fabrica offers 50 applicants a year, under the age of 25, a scholarship to work on projects in creative writing, industrial design, film and video, interactive design, music, photography, and visual communication, which remains a central concern. As well as work for Benetton, participants have undertaken commissions for Nikon, MTV, Louis Vuitton, Taschen and other clients, as well as social campaigns. Almost everyone seems to have obliged Fabrica with a workshop or lecture – April Greiman, Lawrence Weiner, Geoff McFetridge, Massimo Vignelli and Werner Herzog, to name only a few.

After the big build-up, and with 700 pages to make the case, one might expect to be stunned by Fabrica’s output, but Fabrica 10 is a curiously uninspiring piece of print. From an endlessly repeated Fabrica blurb (a job for the copywriters, surely?), we learn that “Creativity is unusual stuff: It frightens. It deranges. It’s subversive. It mistrusts what it sees, what it hears. It dares to doubt.” In the latest version of the ad, a group of naked men stand in a circle with their heads up each others’ arses. This lacklustre piece of digital Magritte seems to be typical of Fabrica’s idea of visual subversion – it’s virtually a house style. Fabrica 10’s cover shows a crying baby with three mouths and the book has many similar examples of insipid, low-cal surrealism: a woman peels off her flesh like a shirt; a trowel has a human hand where the metal blade should be; a young guy sticks his finger up his nose and – yow! – it comes out of the other nostril.

None of this body-morphing is the slightest bit frightening or challenging. It’s corny and dull. One looks in vain through Fabrica 10, or at Benetton’s recent advertising campaigns, for any sign that the company is living up to its bold claim to be shaping the future of visual communication. In their time, Toscani’s unprecedented visual gestures could hardly have provoked more disquiet. Things are a lot less subversive without Kalman. Say what you like about their motivation and ideas, Benetton took a genuine risk with these collaborators. As it turns 40, the fashion giant looks like an outfit that has lost its sense of creative direction. No longer posing any real threat to the essential divide between editorial and advertising, or even to ordinary good taste, Benetton blends uneventfully into the landscape of ubiquitous but not very exciting global brands.


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