Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Benetton launched advertising campaigns created by Oliviero Toscani that made world-wide turmoil. It was the first campaign that didn’t show the company’s products, but featured people from various ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds, promoting a message of unity and breaking down societal barriers. In essence, the meaning behind the United Colors of Benetton is about embracing diversity, promoting unity, and encouraging people to appreciate and respect each other’s differences.
These campaigns sparked discussions about social issues, including racial and cultural harmony, and have been both praised for their positive message and criticized for being provocative or controversial.
Thinking back, I was blown away by these gigantic billbord ads and thought this is what we need to talk about to make the world a better place. They forced you to think and take a standpoint. Yes, the ads were provoking, but at the same time often beautiful in their execution.
This article takes a look at Oliviero Toscani’s scandalous ad campaigns for United Colors of Benetton. What made them so controversial and what was Benetton’s approach to advertising and the brand’s philosophy.
Photo: Benetton S/S 1992, “Murder”. Concept: Oliviero Toscani. Credits: Franco Zecchini/Magnum.
Franco Zecchi’s picture of a Mafia killing was part of a controversial Benetton advertising campaign that featured photos of real-life situations. However, the daughter of Benedetto Grado, the dead Sicilian in the picture, announced she was going to sue Benetton, asking, “How does my father’s death enter into publicity for sweaters?”
Who is Benetton?
Benetton is an Italian clothing brand founded by Luciano Benetton and his siblings, Giuliana, Gilberto, and Carlo Benetton, in 1965. The company, originally named “Benetton Group,” is known for its colorful knitwear and casual clothing.
Under Luciano Benetton’s leadership, the brand gained international recognition for its innovative marketing strategies and controversial advertising campaigns. Benetton became widely recognized for its “United Colors of Benetton” campaign, which aimed to promote diversity and social issues through provocative imagery.
The company expanded rapidly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, establishing a global presence with stores in numerous countries. Benetton’s success was driven by its distinctive designs, affordable prices, and the strong brand identity it developed through its advertising campaigns.
Over the years, Benetton Group diversified its product offerings and acquired various fashion brands, including Sisley, Playlife, and United Colors of Benetton. The company operated multiple clothing lines, targeting different segments of the market.
In recent years, Benetton has faced challenges and undergone restructuring to adapt to changing consumer preferences and market conditions. The brand continues to operate and sell its products globally, though its advertising approach has shifted to a more subdued and less controversial style compared to its earlier campaigns.
Who is Oliviero Toscani?
Oliviero Toscani is an Italian photographer and art director, best known for his work with the Benetton Group, particularly during the controversial advertising campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. He was born on February 28, 1942, in Milan, Italy.
Toscani collaborated closely with Benetton as their creative director from 1982 to 2000. During this time, he created and executed numerous provocative and socially conscious advertising campaigns for the brand. His work challenged conventional advertising norms and tackled sensitive topics such as racism, AIDS, poverty, and social inequality. The ads often featured striking and controversial imagery, aiming to spark conversations and generate public awareness.
Toscani’s collaboration with Benetton led to significant recognition and notoriety. His photography was characterized by a direct and confrontational style, pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in advertising. The campaigns he worked on became widely discussed and debated, earning both praise for their boldness and criticism for their controversial nature.
Beyond his work with Benetton, Toscani has pursued a successful career as a photographer, art director, and social commentator. He has been involved in various projects and collaborations with other brands and organizations, focusing on social issues and using his artistic platform to provoke thought and discussion.
Photo: Benetton F/W 1991, “Angel and devil”. Credits: Oliviero Toscani.
Two innocent young girls — one white, one black — embrace one another. The girl on the left looks like an angel. The other girl has her hair spiked up like devil horns and resists a smile. Although attempting a “uniting” effect, the ad express that white is good and black is bad.
Why were Benetton ads so controversial?
Benetton ads were controversial due to their provocative and often controversial content. The United Colors of Benetton gained a reputation for pushing boundaries and addressing social and political issues through their advertising campaigns. Here are some reasons why Benetton ads stirred controversy:
- Shocking Imagery: Benetton ads were known for featuring provocative and sometimes shocking imagery that aimed to grab attention and evoke strong emotional responses. They often depicted controversial topics such as racial diversity, social inequality, war, and disease in a confrontational manner. Some of the images were graphic and depicted real-life tragedies or controversial figures.
- Exploiting Sensitive Topics: The brand frequently tackled sensitive and polarizing issues such as racism, AIDS, poverty, and religious conflicts. The use of these topics in their ads was seen by some as a way of exploiting tragedies and sensitive subjects for commercial gain.
- Cultural Sensitivity: Some of the Benetton ads faced criticism for their portrayal of different cultures and ethnicities. Critics argued that the ads could perpetuate stereotypes or misrepresent cultural identities by showcasing diverse individuals in provocative or unconventional ways.
- Ethical Concerns: Benetton ads often pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in advertising. Critics accused the brand of using shock value and controversial content solely to gain attention and create controversy, without addressing the underlying social issues in a meaningful way.
- Clash with Traditional Advertising Norms: Benetton’s approach challenged the traditional norms of advertising, which typically focus on promoting products and projecting a positive brand image. The brand’s emphasis on social and political issues was seen by some as inappropriate or unrelated to the promotion of clothing.
- Legal Issues: Some of the Benetton ads faced legal challenges and censorship in certain countries due to their controversial content. For example, some countries banned specific ads featuring nudity, religious symbols, or explicit imagery.
Despite the controversies, Benetton’s advertising campaigns undeniably succeeded in capturing attention, sparking discussions, and making the brand highly recognizable. The controversial nature of their ads generated both praise for their boldness and criticism for their tactics, highlighting the fine line between creative expression and societal sensitivities.
Photo: Benetton F/W 1990, “Blanket”. Credits: Oliviero Toscani.
The ad is a message of unity: An interracial, homosexual family warmed by a single blanket. The power of this advert is its subtlety and refusal to submit to any homosexual stereotypes or restrictions in terms of interracial love or the issue of adopting.
“Our advertising is designed to provoke, to be slightly subversive, to question some established values, and ignite a debate.”
“We don’t sell clothes, we sell the idea of a better future.”
“Color is not just a decorative element but an expression of energy, freedom, and life.”
“We believe in using advertising as a means to raise awareness on social issues and promote positive change.”
“Our campaigns are about celebrating diversity, breaking down barriers, and building bridges between people.”
“We want our customers to identify not only with the product but with the values and messages we stand for.”
Quotes by Luciano Benetton, the founder of the United Colors of Benetton, that highlight his approach to advertising and the brand’s philosophy.
What was Benetton’s brand philosophy behind the controversial ads?
Benetton’s brand philosophy behind the controversial ads can be understood as a commitment to social activism, diversity, and raising awareness about pressing global issues. The brand sought to use its advertising platform to go beyond selling products and instead make a statement about societal and political concerns:
- Social Engagement: Benetton aimed to actively engage with social and political issues by using its brand as a vehicle for raising awareness. The controversial ads were a manifestation of the brand’s belief that corporations have a responsibility to address social challenges and contribute to positive change.
- Diversity and Inclusion: Benetton emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusivity. The ads featured individuals from various ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds, promoting the idea that unity can be found in diversity. By showcasing a range of people, the brand aimed to celebrate differences and challenge social biases.
- Advocacy and Activism: Benetton positioned itself as an advocate for social causes and a catalyst for change. The controversial ads were a means to spark conversations, challenge norms, and encourage people to reflect on important issues. The brand aimed to inspire action and prompt individuals to question and reconsider their perspectives.
- Visual Impact and Creative Expression: Benetton believed in the power of visual communication and creative expression to convey meaningful messages. The brand utilized striking and often provocative imagery to evoke emotional responses and capture attention. The intent was to create thought-provoking visuals that would stay in the viewers’ minds, fostering continued discussion and reflection.
- Brand Integrity: The controversial ads aligned with Benetton’s brand identity as an innovative and daring fashion brand. By pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo, the brand aimed to demonstrate its commitment to creativity, authenticity, and a unique approach to advertising.
Photo: Benetton S/S 1991, “Condoms”. Credits: Oliviero Toscani.
The coloured condoms campaign was a nod to the AIDS crisis which was ravaging the younger generations in the late Eighties and early Nineties. In November 1997, Benetton began selling “a complete range of coloured, reliable and up-to-the-minute condoms” world-wide.
The aim behind Benetton controversial ads
The aim behind Benetton’s controversial ads was multifaceted, encompassing several objectives:
- Brand Awareness: Benetton sought to increase brand visibility and recognition by creating advertising campaigns that were attention-grabbing and memorable. The controversial nature of the ads helped the brand stand out in a crowded marketplace and generate widespread awareness.
- Social Commentary: The controversial ads were intended to spark conversations and raise awareness about social and political issues. Benetton aimed to use its platform and influence to draw attention to topics such as racism, social inequality, poverty, and global conflicts. The ads served as a means to stimulate dialogue and promote a broader understanding of these issues.
- Brand Differentiation: Benetton aimed to differentiate itself from other clothing brands by positioning itself as socially conscious and committed to making a positive impact. The provocative and controversial nature of the ads allowed Benetton to distinguish itself from competitors and project an image of a brand that was unafraid to tackle challenging topics.
- Emotional Connection: The ads aimed to establish an emotional connection with the audience by evoking strong reactions and eliciting empathy. Benetton sought to create a bond between the brand and consumers by addressing thought-provoking issues that resonated with their values and emotions.
- Impactful Advertising: By pushing boundaries and using unconventional imagery, Benetton sought to demonstrate its commitment to creativity and innovative marketing. The brand aimed to set itself apart by delivering advertising campaigns that were visually striking, memorable, and impactful.
- Publicity and Media Attention: The controversial nature of the ads generated substantial media coverage and public discussion. Benetton aimed to leverage this publicity to extend the reach and impact of its marketing efforts, maximizing exposure and engagement with the target audience.
It is important to note that while the controversial ads helped Benetton achieve these objectives, they were not without criticism and controversy themselves. The intention behind the ads was to provoke thought and generate attention, but they also faced backlash and ethical concerns regarding the use of sensitive subjects for commercial purposes.