|This article originally appeared in
|adageglobal.com, august 2001
|Cover story by Eric J. Lyman
|AdAge's Eric J. Lyman travels to Tuscany to talk to the man behind some of the most
memorable and controversial ads in history, about his work with Benetton, and whether he
might get back into the advertising business.
Oliviero Toscani, the creative mind behind the controversial ad campaigns that turned Italian clothing maker Benetton into a
household name, has no problem going right for the jugular. After we spend a few minutes chatting about relatively benign topics like
future projects and his life after leaving Benetton last year, Toscani suddenly demands: "Don't you want to ask about the 'Death Row'
Though Toscani worked as Benetton's creative director for 18 years from 1982 through to 2000 -
he will probably be best remembered for last year's headline-grabbing campaign based on photos
and information about some 26 death row inmates from six U.S. states. Toscani and Benetton say
the international "We On Death Row" campaign was aimed at drawing attention to the controversy
surrounding the use of capital punishment in the U.S., where support for the death penalty is nearly
as universal as opposition to it is in Toscani's native 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.
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.
Toscani and Benetton were no strangers to controversy around their ad campaigns, but the protests against the death row ads hit the
company where it hurt - its bottom line.
It wasn't a big surprise when three months after the controversy hit its peak that Toscani resigned, and Benetton made no effort to
convince him to change his mind. Though - officially at least - both Toscani and Benetton say the May 2000 departure was not related
to the latest round of controversy: Toscani has so far failed to latch onto a major project (a series of billboards for an Italian
hypermarket chain called Panorama are unambitious, even if not judged by Toscani's standards). And the company itself has suffered
from the drop in visibility.
"Toscani and Benetton were a classic marriage that is far better than the sum of its two parts," said one Milan-based advertising
executive, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. "Toscani is an enormous talent, and Benetton has its niche in the clothing
world. But with this relationship over, both will have to reinvent themselves. Emulating the last would be unoriginal."
Not that Toscani and Benetton are strangers to the notion of reinventing themselves. By the height of his success, Toscani earned a
reputation for both arrogance and drama, but it's worth noting that his first campaign for Benetton in 1982 used teddy bears to model
the children's clothing line. The next several campaigns were similarly forgettable.
Colors of the World" campaign 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.
span on symbolic, poignant, jarring, and controversial ads that the man and the
company became known for: a priest kissing a nun; a bloody baby fresh from the
womb; a black stallion mounting a white mare; a colorful mix of condoms spread
over a bright background; a white infant suckling a black woman's breast; the
exposed pulsing hearts of three different races shown during surgery; the body of
an AIDS victim moments before death; frightened refugees clawing for food at a
ship's cargo net; and the bloody uniform of a dead Bosnian soldier.
Even before the opus "Death Row" series, many had labeled 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. As a former Benetton colleague told me: "Toscani, in his life and in his work, enjoys making
people feel uncomfortable" - whether friends, politicians, corporate heavyweights, or potential customers. That is a charge Toscani
"Didn't Francis Bacon and Goya make people feel uncomfortable?" he asks, his relaxed Tuscan accent raising an octave. "They did and
we are better for it! Art represents the edge and of course the edge cab make people feel uncomfortable. But it's also a matter of the
person you are talking to: personally, I think the rain is uncomfortable. But try making that argument to a fish."
When I told him that a man who likes to be taken literally should know that there no argument that can be made to a fish, Toscani
smiled and pulled out his trump card. "The one thing nobody can deny
is that the ads worked," he said.
That is true: when Toscani left Benetton, annual sales were more than
20 times greater than they were when he arrived, notwithstanding the
recent sales slump in the U.S. (for the first time in two decades,
Benetton's sales declined slightly in fiscal year 2000-2001, the first year
of Toscani's absence).
But nobody talks to Toscani for the latest sales numbers: he shines
brightest when giving his opinions about his field.
I asked him if he believes advertising is art, and he didn't miss a beat:
"Sometimes advertising is art," he said. "But art is always advertising."
He paused to puff on a small cigar before returning to the theme. "The Renaissance was just advertising for the Vatican," he said. "The
cross is the most effective logo of its time, like the Coca-Cola of another era. Even the swastika was a logo, a powerful logo."
Toscani freely criticizes today's politicians and corporations, which he says focus too much on profit and not enough on the creative
element of business. Italian prime minister and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, he says, is a great example. "Berlusconi is obviously
not an artist," Toscani says. "It is true that me knows how to make a great deal of money and that he shows a certain instinct, but he is
no genius, and Mediaset [Berlusconi's television networks] is disgusting. A CEO like Enzo Ferrari set out with a different view, to make
a car like nothing ever seen. And as a result, he will live forever."
After leaving Benetton, Toscani briefly became creative director at Tina Brown's New York-based Talk magazine, which garnered
uneven reviews and weak circulation numbers. Still, Toscani's contribution is credited for giving the magazine a clean and crisp feel to
Aside from that, he writes an occasional column for a regional Italian newspaper and tends to his horses on the land he owns near the
Tuscan city of Pisa. But he says he has more than that in the works: His next pet project is to found a creative cultural center in an as-
yet unnamed Italian city and then to expand from there. The idea is a broader evolution of Fabrica, a creative laboratory Toscani
founded using Benetton's cash back in 1994. Toscani tells me the biggest hurdle he faces in establishing the creative center is dealing
with the bureaucrats who will ultimately help fund it. "The artist and the bureaucrat," he says, "they do not have a great deal in
advertising critic. He is unenthusiastic when it comes to discussing ad
work being produced today. "Agencies get huge budgets, but the money
is wasted because the strategies are decided upon by managers,
economists, accountants, and focus groups - not the artists," he says. "In
the past, patrons had the sense to tell Michelangelo what they wanted and
they left it to him to decide how to do it. But it doesn't work that way any
more. Everyone thinks he can be an artist or at least tell the artist what he
he says, his current lifestyle doesn't allow him to follow the industry as he
once did - though a cynic might say he also doesn't want to risk offending
a potential future employer.
He doesn't rule out getting back into the advertising game at some point, though he tells me the option is unappealing at the moment.
But he is keeping that iron in the fire: He did appear in a testimonial ad produced by Milan's Marani/Omnimedia.com for Lorenz
watches, and the local trade press carries periodic stories about him discussing possible joint projects with various agencies, though
the talks have so far failed to yield any results.
But the machinations of the ad industry is a subject Toscani eventually tires of, and our conversation invariably drifts back to the
"Death Row" ads he says represent his best work from his 18 years at Benetton. "Most ads are forgotten immediately, and even good
ads are forgotten after six months," he says. "But who still remembers the Benetton ad with the priest kissing the nun? Ten years later
and people still remember! That's immortality!"
In June, the Missouri lawsuit was settled when Benetton agreed to write letters of apology to the four Missouri families whose
relatives were 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.
Even as the campaign fades from the public consciousness and becomes a chapter in advertising history, a satisfied Toscani tells me
he has 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 asks simply.
Sidebar: Toscani, Benetton, and the public eye
Benetton's rise to the top was a laughing matter
Some say that, at least in Italy, Toscani and Benetton "officially" because part of Italian popular culture in 1994. That was the year that
the lead comedian at the San Remo Music Festival - Italy's most watch television program - started his routine with a joke about
The comedian, Luca Rizo, a fair-skinned performer from northern Italy, loudly complained that he had had a tough day. "I came home
unexpectedly early and caught by 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?"
According to corporate consultant and university sociologist Andrea Brocceti,
a joke like that works only when the company in question is so well known that
it needs no background explanation and when its reputation is uniform enough
to avoid confusion. "I would guess that in any given country, that status can be
held by only a dozen or so companies at the most," he says. "If you go any
deeper into a list than that and you start arriving at companies that certain parts
of the population are unaware of."
Brocceti says that Benetton is clearly among those companies in Italy - joining the links of fashion names like Armani and Versace, car
icon Ferrari, and coffee giant Illy. But it remains to be seen if the company will remain there in the post-Toscani era. The Rome-based
polling company Opinioni each year lists Italy's ten most recognized companies, based on research from the previous year. Benetton
was on the list for the ninth consecutive year, according to the results released this year, but the company fell from its perennial spot
among the top four companies to ninth in the latest list, barely edging Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Mediaset networks - the
company Toscani said was "disgusting" - to stay out of the final spot in the poll.
(By Eric J. Lyman in Rome)
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