"A grave lack of respect… an offence to the feelings of believers… how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect"
— Father Federico Lombardi, The Vatican
Is there such a thing as an uneventful day in Rome?
On 16 November 2011, the sun was shining, it was an unseasonably balmy 16 degrees celsius in the Eternal City. Just four days earlier Silvio Berlusconi had slipped out of a side door at the Quirinale having tendered his resignation to President Giorgio Napolitano. "Buffone" and "Mafiosi" protesters and demonstrators had jeered in the streets as Berlusconi’s motorcade swept by on the cobblestones.
At his new residence in the Palazzo Chigi, the former European Commissioner, Mario Monti, a sober antidote to his colourful predecessor as prime minister, was unveiling Italy’s new government, a list stacked with earnest technocrats and worthy academics.
But across the city, over the side of a Renaissance bridge near the Vatican, something more colourful and controversial was being unveiled. A group was unfurling a huge banner that depicted Pope Benedict XVI sharing a kiss on the mouth with the prominent Egyptian Sunni Islam imam, Ahmed el Tayeb.
It was one of a series of simultaneous "guerrilla actions". Others were delivered in Paris, with a banner showing the president of France Nicolas Sarkozy kissing German chancellor Angela Merkel, outside Milan’s cathedral, where US president Barack Obama was locked mouth to mouth with Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, and in Israel, where a huge poster showing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a clinch with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas appeared beside a highway in Tel Aviv.
The perpetrator of these actions, designed to promote "an ideal notion of tolerance", was Alessandro Benetton, deputy head of the Ponzano Veneto-based Benetton Group. Announcing its new "Unhate" campaign, Alessandro, the eldest son of Benetton founder Luciano, confirmed his company’s return to its controversial advertising roots with a statement describing the "kiss" as the "most universal symbol of love".
Back in Rome, the banner of the Pope hanging at the Pons Aelius, facing St Peter’s, was swiftly removed. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi described it as showing "a grave lack of respect for the Pope, an offence to the feelings of believers, a clear demonstration of how publicity can violate the basic rules of respect for people". He added that the Holy See was considering legal action against the company, which had defined controversy in advertising in the 1990s with its "United Colors" campaign.
When you approach it by road from Treviso, driving through the rolling green countryside of the lower Veneto, the Villa Pastega Manera presents itself as a classic 17th-century, Palladian-style villa. But it is a deception. The home of Fabrica, Benetton’s research and development communication centre, is a cunningly disguised, reinforced concrete bunker, a masterpiece of underground construction, designed by legendary Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and featuring a Guggenheim-style library stairway and 12-metre-high columns.
It was from here that Oliviero Toscani, photographer and creative director, imagined the work that would define his career and transform the fortunes of the clothing brand. The seminal "United Colors of Benetton" campaign, which ran from the mid-1980s, peaked in 1992 with an ad featuring a photograph by Therese Frare of her friend David Kirby, as he lay dying from Aids and surrounded by his family in a hospital bed in Columbus, Ohio.
The image drew comparisons with a pietà (a work of art that shows the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus Christ) and was attacked by the Catholic Church as an inappropriate allusion; this despite assurances from Kirby’s father that his son would have wanted the image to be seen across the world.
It was campaigns like this, alongside the groundbreaking work Toscani did in partnership with graphic designer Tibor Kalman, that helped build Benetton’s distinctive and provocative voice. The company used a groundbreaking business model of clever branding alongside a "just-in-time" supply chain, to allow it to rush its clothes to demanding young customers on every high street and in every shopping mall in the world; a familiar set-up today for brands such as Zara and H&M.
When, after 18 years, Toscani split with Benetton, it was his controversial "Sentenced to death" campaign and the subsequent boycott of Benetton by Chicago retail giant Sears, Roebuck and Company that was the shock too far. As he departed Treviso in April 2000, The Guardian described Toscani as "the controversial photographer who loosed snogging priests, dying Aids victims, copulating horses and death row inmates on to an unsuspecting world in the name of selling jumpers". It described his tenure at Fabrica as comparable to the Papal patronage of Michelangelo.
Toscani didn’t disagree. "Communication has always been at the service of power. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel for the Pope. Is it not an advertisement for the church?"
The tensions that define Benetton’s relationship with those outside it seem interwoven with the worldview of the Catholic Church. And so they were again in 2011 when the company decided to rekindle the spirit of Toscani and rediscover the power to provoke and shock.
As in the 1990s, the premise was to celebrate diversity, inclusion and love. "At this moment in our history," Alessandro Benetton intoned, "so full of major upheavals and large hopes, we have decided to give widespread visibility to an ideal notion of tolerance and invite the citizens of every country to reflect on how hatred arises, particularly from fear of ‘the other’ and of what is unfamiliar to us."
"That’s an awfully high-minded sentiment from a man who makes Day-Glo hipster slacks," AdWeek hissed. Entertainment Weekly chipped in with: "Are they really going to make consumers feel that Benetton clothing inspires equality or will the jarring image of a pope-imam kiss deter buyers?"
Which kind of misses the point. Anyone spending time in the workshops and studios at Villa Pastega Manera couldn’t fail to be impressed by Fabrica’s commitment to nurture the most talented and creative young people to build a "cultural subversion centre", experimenting with the disciplines of communication, from words, images, video and design to fashion music and performance. A labour of love for Luciano Benetton, a mission and purpose for Toscani, Fabrica created an authenticity that helped position United Colors of Benetton as the best fit for its customers.
And advertising provided a perfect canvas for the competing forces of market share and global storytelling. Toscani said of his philosophy: "Advertising is the best way to communicate because you reach a lot of people. I still can’t understand, though, why people are shocked by something that actually exists. It’s like a family that avoids talking about its real problems."
So when Alessandro Benetton decided to refresh the canvas, his vision was to create "young-minded messages", meaning for everyone who shared a certain view of the world that was inclusive and diverse but not always politically correct. To deliver the vision, he chose to work with 72andSunny in Amsterdam. "The brief was ‘global love,’" creative director Carlo Cavallone recalled. "And Alessandro’s intention was to use the advertising platform to express a view of the world."
Cavallone collaborated with the Cuban Erik Ravelo, creative director of Colors magazine at Fabrica, to bring Ravelo's kisses visual idea to life. "It was hard to talk about ‘love’ per se because of the danger of making something saccharine. We needed a tension, a notion that maybe what’s more realistic than loving your enemies is to stop hating them."
"This was the genesis of the idea," Cavallone told Campaign. "The tensions inherent in culture, religion, politics, etc, being tested and challenged to celebrate differences… to ‘unhate’."
And despite the tsunami of criticism it unleashed, the "Unhate" campaign, which ran in 170 countries, touched more than 500 million users, and generated 3,000 articles and 600 TV reports in 60 countries. In social channels, "Unhate" was a top five trending story on Twitter, and Benetton’s Facebook fan numbers increased 60%. Seven months after its launch, "Unhate" won the Cannes Lions Press Grand Prix. "It cuts through all cultures, nationalities, faith even," jury president and former Ogilvy global creative chief Tham Khai Meng said.
But as if to prove that social noise and glittering prizes provide no guarantees of commercial success, the Benetton business continued its slow decline. In the 10 years prior to "Unhate", the group’s global sales rose by only 2%. In the US sales dropped by 8% in the same period, and in the months before November 2011, Benetton’s net income fell 33% to a little over $42m.
Just as the tension between love and hate powered the impact of Cavallone’s stunning images, so the tension between committed storytelling and product sales struggled to find a correlation. "This was never the intention," Cavallone insisted. "The ads were a way to express a point of view; not about shock attention, market share and sales. As an anecdote, we created a 60-second film to accompany the ads. While in pre-production, Benetton was keen we didn’t use their clothes on models because the purpose was not to seed branded products."
In the wake of the campaign, Benetton set up the Unhate Foundation: "not a cosmetic exercise", it announced, "but a vehicle of communication… organising initiatives… which will have a real impact on the international community".
Toscani was damming of the whole "Unhate" project, branding it "insincere" as he subsequently swept back into Villa Pastega Manera in January 2018, reunited with his mentor and patron Luciano Benetton, now once again the group’s executive director.
One of the many criticisms of "Unhate", expressed in a 2018 De Gruyter paper, entitled Marketing Communication Analysis of Benetton PR Campaigns, was of false morality. Portraying two men sharing a "fake" but intimate kiss was both violating the principle of truth in advertising and, in the case of Pope Benedict and Ahmed el Tayeb, running contrary to their religious teachings.
Yet the impact of these two men kissing could equally be described as a powerful affirmation of religious teaching, the example of Jesus’ disciple Luke’s lesson to "love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you".
The fact that these stories, from Toscani’s Kirby deathbed ad to Cavallone’s "Unhate" campaign, provoke so much incendiary attention, bile and outrage suggests a much closer relationship between this kind of advertising and the populist language of "Breaking point" or "We send the EU £350 million a week".
Nobody could say that the multicultural, human message at the heart of Benetton’s best work lacked cut-through. Nobody could say it didn’t offend and galvanise in equal measure.
For those people unfurling that banner showing two irreconcilable faiths conjoined in a passionate kiss, this was activism not commercialism. For David Kirby’s father, who told Therese Frare that "Benetton didn’t use us or exploit us, we used them", this was activism not commercialism.
"The genius of Benetton advertising," Cavallone said, with measured understatement, "is that it is simply not very agreeable.
As a passionate magazine maker, I am passionate about magazines. And on my stacked shelves at home there are some quintessential ones; magazines that didn’t just define a culture or community for their audience but were themselves the cultural zeitgeist.
Magazines like Nick Logan’s The Face, Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair, James Brown’s Loaded, Marvin Scott Jarrett’s Ray Gun, Adam Moss’ New York, Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, they defy simple pigeon-holing and transcend the normal language of communication because they are reinventing it.
But the best of the lot for me, and with pride of place on the shelf, is Tibor Kalman’s Colors magazine for Benetton. A soaring tour de force, it is at once brutal and kind, hideous and gorgeous, shocking and reassuring. It is a whirlwind of imagination and juxtaposition with its big themes like Mama, Trash, Touch, Shopping, Hair, Toys and Smoking.
The genius of Kalman’s work is that its judgment-free, factual presentation of human multiculturalism is, by its simple alignment of values (this is how hair is worn for ceremony in Mozambique, this is a display of pubic hair in Santa Monica, this is a hairdressing salon in Kyoto), forcing the reader to think about what unites us and divides us across ethnic and cultural boundaries; indeed, how globalism and mass media are making these alternatives more accessible and, therefore, more alien.
Kalman’s own background explains some of these interesting juxtapositions. Growing up in New York as a refugee from the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Kalman believed he was Roman Catholic until the age of 18, when he discovered he was actually Jewish. He also became a member of the Venceremos Brigade, a pro-Cuban revolution student group, when he worked in Cuba harvesting sugar cane.
All of which helped shape his very particular world view. "I am interested in imperfections, quirkiness, insanity, unpredictability. That’s what we really pay attention to anyway. We don’t talk about planes flying, we talk about them crashing," he said.
As founding editor-in-chief of Colors, Kalman, a graphic artist by training, answered Oliviero Toscani’s question about why people are shocked by something that actually exists, by layering together images of stuff that exists with no special emphasis except a brilliant eye for picture editing.
One of my other passions is working with young people who are enthusiastic about making magazines. An exercise I do is to swap some of my favourite magazines with theirs. On every occasion I do this, the one mag they all want to cling on to is Kalman’s timeless and provocative Colors. Every time.
By Simon Kantar