UFOs, runaway trains and kitsch ads took a jeans brand into the big
time, Margaret Olley writes
Cut the bullshit. Enjoy life. Laugh. This is the philosophy behind the
provocative advertising that helped catapult the Italian streetwear
brand, Diesel, into competition with big-name jeans labels across 73
countries in just five years.
High on visual impact and relatively low on product coverage, Diesel ads
have featured flying saucers, blonde-haired madonnas, runaway trains and
slogans such as ‘who needs two lungs anyway?’.
But despite - or perhaps because of - the seeming irrelevance of the ads
to its clothing, Diesel’s quirky, award-winning advertising struck a
chord with the streetwise. In many countries, wearing a pair of Diesel
jeans, T-shirt or shades has become almost obligatory among younger
Unusually for an Italian company, the agency driving this image is based
in Sweden. This situation came about when Diesel’s founder, Renzo Rosso,
started casting around for an agency in 1990.
He was advised to speak to Joakim Jonasson, one of the three founders of
the Stockholm-based agency, DDB Paradiset, and once the two met it was
clear their philosophies were in step, in particular, both hated
Paradiset and Diesel set up a joint creative team, and together dreamed
up the ‘successful living’ campaign.
‘Some of the stories in our ads mean a lot, others are a satire or a
glimpse of life,’ Jonasson says. Serious ads have included ‘two lungs’,
an attack on tobacco companies. Another showed celebrations at the end
of the 1939-45 war and featured male sailors kissing - a criticism of
the homophobic reaction in the US to moves to allow homosexuals in the
Another ad which ran in New York’s Interview magazine showed an election
train about to run over a girl tied to railway tracks. This, Jonasson
says, was a comment on the US election campaign.
Diesel and its agency believe that people are more intelligent than most
advertisers give them credit for, and also that it is important to
laugh. So, while some ads are on the serious side, others are plain
silly - a major exercise in kitsch.
One of Jonasson’s favourites in this last category is an early effort
depicting a fictional Swede, Mildred Lindstrom, explaining how to feed a
The advertising/marketing director of Diesel, Maurizio Marchiori, says:
‘We don’t want to put pressure on our customers. But we want to show our
ideas and our philosophy with a little bit of irony.’
The story of Diesel’s success since its formation 11 years ago reads
like a rags-to-riches fairytale for its 40-year-old founder, Rosso, the
son of an Italian farmer.
He started the company in 1985 in his home town of Molvena, in the
foothills of the Alps, and in its first year turnover amounted to just
over five billion lira (pounds 2.17 million). It has since mushroomed
into a 580 billion lira (pounds 252 million) business and is considering
a listing on the New York stock exchange.
Diesel labels and licensed products now include Diesel Modern Basic,
Diesel Female, 555 Diesel, Diesel Shades, Diesel Kids and the
accessories line, Spare Parts. In addition, the company launched a
unisex fragrance, called Diesel, last year, and has plans to launch two
more in 1997.
Six to 8 per cent of Diesel’s turnover goes on advertising, according to
Marchiori, with about 3.5 per cent on TV and cinema and 1.6 per cent on
Advertising currently takes the form of 12 print executions and two
spots for TV and/or cinema each season. Ads have kept their irreverent
tone, but are moving towards greater product coverage.
Variety is the keynote - an ad never runs more than once in the same
magazine. There is, however, a minor break with tradition this year,
with Diesel adopting a theme for the season, in this case, ‘be a
‘Welcome to Planet Diesel,’ the company’s answer machine says. Tourist
or not, one suspects there will be more arrivals in the coming year.