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
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.