In the history of attention-getting advertising, writes Rick Poynor, 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 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 was.