Benetton has a new shock tactic for its advertising - not, this
time, prisoners on Death Row, or a new-born baby with an uncut umbilical
cord, or even a black horse mounting a white one. The new tactic is to
put a group of students in charge of advertising for the worldwide
fashion retail chain.
Oliviero Toscani, the creative director and photographer behind
Benetton’s consistently controversial advertising, has split with the
company after 18 years.
The Italian retail giant has not decided whether to appoint another
creative director but, in the short term, Fabrica, the ’communications
research centre’ set up by Toscani in 1994, will take on the task.
People aged under 25 from all over the world apply to Fabrica to study a
range of disciplines including music, cinema, video and graphic design
and to produce editorial for publications such as Benetton’s Colors
It is overseen by an ’international scientific committee’ that consists
of promising students kept on by Toscani.
Benetton claims Fabrica has been independent up until now. Students
would work on projects for both profit and non-profit organisations on a
take it or leave it basis. They could retain their ’artistic integrity’
because they were not under pressure to earn money for accounts as the
centre was resourced by Benetton.
But Toscani has provided the artistic vision for the company for more
than 18 years. However, it is expected that the ruling Benettons,
including the president Luciano Benetton, will continue to have ultimate
control over the company’s advertising. The Benetton family, which first
came together to start a knitwear business in 1955, still owns around 70
per cent of the company under the banner of Edizone Holding.
Toscani was unavailable to comment on the strategy for Benetton’s
He is on a shoot for a ’big project’ for Talk magazine in the US and
will not return to his home in Italy until the end of May. But in the
past he has argued that ’provocation is the basic language of art’ and
that ’consumption communication should tackle real issues’.
Benetton has produced a history of its advertising, called Benetton
Advertising: A Story of Prizes and Controversy, in which it talks of its
’quest for a dialogue with so- called ’consumers’ which eschews
traditional product advice’.
This particular mission statement refers to an Aids-related campaign in
1994, which showed the faces of more than 1,000 young people in a
hologram to spell the word ’Aids’.
Some would say that Toscani has never devised a clear advertising
strategy for Benetton, relying instead on a series of shocking images
that do not relate in any way to the clothes it sells. The latest ad
shows prisoners on Death Row.
Toscani’s work may have gone too far this time, though, with some
serious consequences for Benetton’s business. In addition to the usual
flurry of complaints to advertising standards bodies across the world,
Benetton faces a lawsuit from the state of Missouri which claims it was
deceived by the law professor who arranged Toscani’s visits to
photograph the condemned men.
Benetton also lost a lucrative contract with the US department store
Sears Roebuck as a result of the campaign. The agreement with Sears was
to open 400 sales outlets using the Benetton brand name but funded by
Sears, with Benetton controlling the brand and styles and Sears
It was to be a lynch-pin of Benetton’s US business, which had suffered a
declining market share in the late 80s, with The Gap making serious
inroads into Benetton’s US business by the early 90s.
Benetton, though, is no stranger to controversy. Past campaign shockers
include an image of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby and another
of two male hands, one black and one white, handcuffed together.
Trevor Beattie, the creative director of TBWA GGT Simons Palmer, whose
own ads - such as fcuk - have caused their own controversy, laughs when
asked to comment on Benetton’s advertising strategy.
He says: ’What strategy? Benetton and advertising strategy is a
contradiction in terms - they don’t have one. It’s not the shock value
that bothers me, it’s the fact that the product is no good. I wouldn’t
be seen on death row in one of Benetton’s bright green cardies. Benetton
has achieved 100 per cent brand awareness but the products are boring
and the shops are outdated. It should have more straightforward
advertising to match the products or improve the products to reflect the
nature of the advertising.’
But despite the latest set-back in the US, Benetton’s controversial ad
campaigns have helped achieve a steady rise in worldwide sales
throughout the 90s. The company recently announced an increase in net
profits of 9.9 per cent, rising to dollars 160.9 million across 1999,
while revenues rose by dollars 5 million.
Benetton now sells its clothes, accessories and sporting goods in more
than 120 countries, with 70 per cent of its sales originating in
As well as the United Colors Of Benetton range (which accounted for
nearly 60 per cent of total Benetton sales in 1998), the company’s
brands include Sisley (the second biggest brand, accounting for 11 per
cent of sales in 1998), Rollerblade, Nordica and Prince. The company
also lends its name to a range of spin-offs such as fragrances,
housewares and even condoms.
So will Benetton dig its heels in and continue with shock tactics until
it runs out of taboos? The US experience would suggest that they can
damage business, while some franchise holders have expressed concern
that they can drive away customers.
But the decision lies with the multinational group of students housed in
a Japanese-designed research complex covering 11,000 square metres just
outside Treviso in Italy. It was Toscani’s Fabrica but now it is
THE TOSCANI FILE
1965: Benetton Group launched in north-east Italy
1984: Toscani’s first Benetton campaign, ’all the colours of the world’,
sparks controversy in South Africa
1990: United Colors of Benetton adopted as official tagline
1991: Toscani’s ad featuring a new-born baby with an uncut umbilical
cord is banned by the ASA
1995: Fabrica, Benetton’s creative school, is launched
2000: Toscani splits with Benetton.