Old Benetton ads were not for the faint of heart. Unless you work in the medical profession or unless you’re nonplussed by Bodies…The Exhibition, many of the ads were meant to shock, totally and completely. A newborn baby with an umbilical cord, three raw human hearts on a table, a man with AIDS on his deathbed. These were some of the Benetton ads that seemed much divorced from selling stuff and more related to a controversial gallery exhibition.
The man behind the dynamically evocative ads, Oliviero Toscani, is back. After 17 years, the provocateur has returned to, once again, shake things up – though in my unprofessional opinion, in a gentler way this time. His first campaign features an image of 28 beaming, Benetton-wearing schoolchildren in an Italian primary school, all different ethnicities. The children are reading Pinocchio with their teacher, and the image is a fairly crystal-clear commentary on multiculturalism and immigration.
“There were 28 schoolchildren from 13 different countries, and four different continents,” Toscani told WWD. “They studied together, they were educated together and they will shape future society.” He says that his past work was also about engaging with issues, not shock tactics: “When we talked about Aids, it wasn’t controversial, it was the reality.”
Toscani was the art director for Benetton from 1982 to 2000, even founding Benetton’s Fabrica, a creative think tank, in 1994. It makes sense that Toscani’s return is now, riding the wave of fashion’s current wokeness. But don’t think he’s here to put a do-gooder mentality on display.
“[Companies] want to exploit social problems while we went straight to the problem,” he told WWD. “If you want to do charity, do it silently, don’t put it on the page of your advertisement, giving 5, 10 percent of sales to charity, that’s bulls–t. Who is paying for that? Your client is. Through our communication, we wanted to tell the world what was going on, AIDS is here, discrimination is here, racism is here. Those are not social campaigns, it’s news.”