Lying on his deathbed, AIDS patient David Kirby made an unlikely poster boy for an ad campaign. The use of an image of his final moments at Ohio State University Hospital in Benetton's ads in 1992 resulted in both praise and rancour.
Other eye-catching billboard ads by the Italian clothing retailer have included a newborn baby still attached to its umbilical cord, a black horse mounting a white one, and pictures of inmates on death row.
Two decades later, Benetton has returned to shock tactics with its 'Unhate' campaign, which provoked the Vatican's anger by using an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb. US president Barack Obama was also on the receiving end of the Unhate treatment; one ad showed how he might look getting familiar with Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, and another with communist firebrand Hugo Chavez.
'To be controversial is a style and heritage from the United Colors of Benetton campaigns,' says Gianluca Pastore, worldwide communication director of the Benetton Group, in his first major interview. 'We are not looking (to be) controversial for the sake of being controversial. We just want to be consistent to the history of this brand.'
The concept for the Unhate campaign sprang from Fabrica, Benetton's in-house research and ideas lab. The clothing brand's reliance on the consultancy, which draws on a network of 600 young people to map trends, reflects its desire to be associated with the social issues of the day.
Benetton is now putting the final touches to the follow-up to 'Unhate', with a view to unveiling it next month at its Brompton Road store in London.
Pastore is keeping his cards close to his chest, but reveals that while the activity will not be 'kiss-themed', or as controversial as its predecessor, it will retain the philosophy behind 'Unhate'. As well as 'opening up a discussion about a big social problem', the next stage of the brand advertising will be focused on giving consumers the chance to participate, he adds.
However, because only 60 of Benetton's 6500 stores worldwide are in the UK, TV executions might not be aired in this country.
Benetton follows a three-tiered formula for its advertising output, using digital to foster a dialogue with customers, press ads in fashion titles to create a sense of 'endorsement', and TV and outdoor to drive footfall.
The brand has wholeheartedly embraced digital in an attempt to drive participation and now spends about 60% of its media budget on online, with this figure set to rise to 80% in the near future.
Indeed, Pastore describes digital as the 'key medium' for Benetton, because the brand's top priority is social engagement.
Pastore's remit is wide-ranging. Alongside his responsibilities for advertising, he also oversees the group's PR and communications, its photography and graphics departments, and licensing and consumer insight for Benetton and its sister brands, Sisley and Playlife.
'It's a long list, I know - it's new and to some extent it's an experiment - let's put everything together,' he jokes.
The amalgamation of so many functions should hold no fear for Pastore, though, who has built his career on bold ventures.
After setting up a 'little but aggressive' ad agency at the age of 23, he went on to oversee the merger of media agencies The Media Edge and CIA in Italy via an 11-year stint at McCann Erickson. Pastore landed the job at Benetton, his first client-side role, last year while touting for business at Attitude, a start-up agency he founded that was seeking to provide an integrated service.
'I was looking for clients, basically, and Benetton was looking for a worldwide communications director, but I discovered this (only) after,' says the genial Italian, between chuckles. 'Initially the meeting was with (Franco Furno), the chief executive of the company, and he introduced me to Alessandro Benetton.'
The brand is going through something of a rebirth under the stewardship of Signore Benetton, who took over as chairman from his father, Luciano, a man viewed by many in Italy as de facto royalty.
The company delisted from the Milan Stock Exchange in May, and the family-owned enterprise can now pursue its aims free from being at the mercy of shareholders' whims.
'Rome wasn't built in a day,' says Pastore. 'We are much more interested in strong and consistent growth rather than a six-month performance.'
That said, there remains a significant amount of work to do if Benetton is to emulate its 90s heyday. Its first-quarter results in 2012 show that its performance is continuing to wane, with year-on-year global revenue down 5.5%, from EUR453m to EUR428m for the period.
Though Europe is central to the brand's heritage, it is in markets further afield from its head office in the rural Italian town of Ponzano Veneto where Benetton is enjoying the most growth - South America and India.
While the company can take the long view now it is no longer listed, it remains hamstrung by about 75% of its stores being run as franchises, meaning changes in a notoriously fast-moving sector can be painfully slow.
For example, fresh store concepts are in the offing, but these must be explained to franchise owners before the revamps can take place. Furthermore, the brand's failure to keep pace with the 'fast-fashion' high-street stars, such as Zara and H&M, has resulted in it losing prominence in the minds of many young people.
Though Pastore concedes that these brands are 'wallet competition', he argues that Benetton is in a different bracket.
'We consider the market divided into product specialists and lifestyle fashion specialists,' he says. 'When consumers step into a Benetton store, they should know exactly what they are looking for and what they can expect.'
This, according to Pastore, makes Benetton more comparable to a 'product specialist' such as Esprit.
He insists that the brand's fortunes can be reinvigorated by championing its core values, which he describes as comprising 'the world of colours, social engagement, Italian quintessence and passion for craftsmanship'.
With this in mind, Benetton's upcoming product campaign later this month, across digital and press, will seek to restore its status as consumers' favoured outlet for coloured knitwear.
In addition, while it has retained many of those consumers it gained 20 years ago, Benetton's lack of resonance with today's youth is something Pastore is keen to change, through activity such as 'Unhate'.
'As with many brands with a long, successful history, we can't expect to be the most popular for youngsters, so our core market now is much more 25 and above,' says Pastore, adding that the brand would like to 'regain the attention' of young consumers.
Another way in which Benetton is seeking to engage the millennials is through the launch of a long-overdue ecommerce site, which will initially soft-launch in key European markets, to coincide with the knitwear campaign.
Benetton aims to drive the desirability of its products by launching its brand campaigns in Milan, London, Paris and New York, to capitalise on those four cities' reputations as fashion leaders.
Paris was chosen as the launch site of the 'Unhate' campaign; now it is the turn of London, a city likely to be in buoyant mood after the Olympics.
'London, for us, represents a point of reference in terms of how this town can create the trends,' says Pastore. 'We are a product specialist brand, but it's important for us to stay and compete to the highest level, where the market is more competitive, and where things happen.'
As for the long-term future of Benetton's marketing, while consumers may now associate the brand with smooching world leaders, Pastore insists that it is not wedded to shock tactics.
'What is important is to stay centred on social engagement, stay close to our brand values, and communicate on an interactive basis with consumers. Creating a discussion just through something shocking is, in itself, not a good deal for anybody.'
Lives: Treviso, Italy.
Family: Married with two children.
Hobbies: 'I don't have as much time as I would like to dedicate to my hobbies. I collect motorcycles and design pieces and enjoy reading, travelling and contemporary art.'
Favourite brand, apart from Benetton: Monocle - the ultimate reading experience.
And another thing: Pastore wanted to be a conductor when he was young.
- Client business director, McCann Erickson (1988-1997)
- General manager, Bozell (1997-1998)
- General manager, BGS D'Arcy (1998-2000)
- Managing director, Mediaedge:cia (2000-2003)
- Managing director/partner, Brand Portal (2003-2010)
- Managing director/partner, Attitude (2010-2011)
- Worldwide communication director, Benetton Group (2011-present)
United Colors of Benetton depicted world leaders locked in a passionate embrace for its 'Unhate' brand campaign, which launched in November.
The eye-catching press and digital executions which, among others, featured images of US President Barack Obama and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez kissing, scooped the press Grand Prix at this year's Cannes Lions Festival.
However, in Italy, an outcry from Catholics resulted in the withdrawal of a campaign image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb.
THREE CHALLENGES FACING PASTORE
- Reconnect Benetton with the youth market that it tapped into so well during its 90s heyday.
- Launch and maintain a compelling ecommerce offer to help reverse the trend of declining revenues.
- Emulate the success of the 'Unhate' campaign while steering clear of unnecessary controversy.
Year-on-year global revenue 5.5% from EUR453m to EUR428m in the first quarter