FABRICA, Italy — Oliviero Toscani, the photographer behind United Colors of Benetton’s notoriously provocative advertising — which grappled openly with topics like racism, AIDS, sexuality, religion, environmentalism and poverty — has returned to the Italian brand after almost two decades. “Our paths are crossing again,” said Toscani, who acknowledged that Benetton has lost ground to competitors since its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Toscani’s new campaign for Benetton depicts a racially diverse Italian classroom, with children from a total of 13 different backgrounds, smiling, cheering and united in a strong riposte to Europe’s migration crisis and imagery of a traditional Italian famiglia. The message is “integration,” explained Toscani. “These children are going to be the future of Europe and Italy. Every country in Europe is like that and I could do that picture in every one of them. This is how the world is going to be.”
In today’s hyper-charged and increasingly polarised socio-political climate, Benetton is hoping to strike a controversial yet authentic and morally grounded chord. Toscani says that competitors who are also embracing diversity are simply fetishising “freaks” and that most fashion advertising is “boring or fake.”
“It’s the reason I’m back here,” says Toscani, who also created iconic imagery for Fiorucci in the '70s and '80s. “More than ever, there are problems in the world and this is what interests me. I think it’s now time for brands to get smarter. I don’t think they should go to agencies, because they won’t produce anything new. They should be free from market research, think about modern society and do something that hasn’t be done.”
These children are going to be the future of Europe and Italy. Every country in Europe is like that and I could do that picture in every one of them.
At the height of its success, Benetton’s campaigns were so controversial they sometimes led to bans. One of the brand’s most famous campaigns included a photo (by Therese Frare) of activist David Kirby lying in an Ohio hospital bed, dying of AIDS, surrounded by his grieving relatives. The image was similar in composition to historical depictions of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus Christ after the crucifixion, causing widespread criticism and controversy. Another depicted three human hearts, with the words ‘White’, ‘Black’ and ‘Yellow’ across each. “To provoke is a very positive thing,” says Toscani. “When I look at a painting or go to the movies, I want to be provoked. It means that someone takes you to a space that you haven’t been to. They provoke you to see something new. We need to be provoked every day.”
The new images are the first stage of a much larger project on the subject of integration, which Toscani will work on at Fabrica, Benetton Group's communication research centre. “We will make this picture to make a statement and then the next step is to [improve] the product, the shops and the lighting in the shops to bring back the magic of Benetton. It’s not a luxurious brand, but it embraces everybody.”
Karla Otto: 'Communication Is More Important Than It Used to Be'