PERSPECTIVE: Racial harmony an unusual product of Toscani extremism

So farewell then, Oliviero Toscani: advertising iconoclast, the man who pressed Aids victims and Death Row prisoners into Benetton’s service and the utterer of some of the most pretentious piffle it’s ever been my misfortune to hear.

So farewell then, Oliviero Toscani: advertising iconoclast, the man

who pressed Aids victims and Death Row prisoners into Benetton’s service

and the utterer of some of the most pretentious piffle it’s ever been my

misfortune to hear.



Toscani and the patron that indulged him for 18 years have split for

reasons not entirely clear but which suggest there are limits to what

even today’s liberal society will tolerate in the advertising presented

to it.



I’ve never been able to figure out why Toscani thinks commercial

advertising should not be merely a vehicle for selling products but a

driver of change in attitudes towards social issues.



There’s nothing wrong with powerful photojournalism - the kind which has

profoundly influenced public opinion on everything from Vietnam’s

killing fields to floods in Bangladesh. But, in Toscani’s hands, the

images have been demeaned and corrupted.



Maybe Benetton has now begun to believe this also.



Certainly, the rising tide of opinion against the company in the US,

where Sears Roebuck has shown it the door and consumer boycotts

threatened, has forced it to face the consequences of running Toscani on

a long lead.



Yet, despite pushing Benetton beyond the boundaries of acceptability,

Toscani leaves one important legacy: the fact that advertising is now

more racially harmonious than ever before is due in no small measure to

his championing of racial integration at a time when black faces in

advertising were conspicuously absent.



I was reminded of this after being contacted by a BBC World Service

producer who wondered if the growing numbers of Afro-Caribbean people

featured in TV commercials and posters during the past few months might

be worth a studio discussion.



Undoubtedly, the ad industry has become more comfortable about featuring

black people in ads. D’Arcy’s nicely observed interplay between two

girls working in a call centre in a recent Maltesers commercial no

longer provokes comment that both are black. And who might have imagined

an advertiser would ever have been bold enough to poke fun at the whole

issue as Egg did with its credit card ad where one character dubs

himself the ’token black man’.



Both ads are symptomatic of significant and welcome change. Time was

when black people suffered from an ugly racist undercurrent among

advertisers which was often disguised but palpable. I suspect that the

board account director of a major agency who told me ten years ago about

how his carmaker client had made it clear that black faces on its

account team would be unwelcome wasn’t unique.



We live in more tolerant times, although Stephen Lawrence’s murder

proves there’s a long way to go. Advertising can aid the process - but

only with care and sensitivity and without Toscani’s extremism.



john.tylee@haynet.com.



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