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United Colors of the World

Benetton and Toscani the Great

How to talk about marketing and activism without talking about Benetton?

The Italian brand is by far the Big Boss in this field. It has been criticized a lot (but you’re never criticized when you don’t do anything) because of its striking posters. Since the 80’s, and thanks to the creative and audacious photographer Oliviero Toscani, Benetton used social issues to communicate.

They always used the same form of posters, it is pretty easily recognizable and simple. One big picture that says much more than thousands of words, and on a corner green logo of the Brand, and this wonderful motto, “United Colors of Benetton”. It is all really coherent, and in a marketing point of view, what they did with the image and the notoriety of the brand is just exemplary.

Is it pure demagoguery? Is it playing on people feelings to make business? Is it just hypocrisy? Is it moral to denounce and seek for profit at the same time?

It is a complex question. Anyway, Benetton’s work has just been amazing. It is not just advertisement, it is art. They talked about so many different problematics, either local (in Italy, especially Mafia and Corruption) or global (racism, death penalty, hunger, religion wars), and they always found a creative and surprising angle.

It is beautiful, it talks to people, and it is advertising in its most noble form.

So now, let’s throw back in time, and look at different campaigns. (Since my blog has to be shining, I won’t publish the darkest pictures. If you’re interested, go have a look for it: it clearly won’t cheer you up, but it is totally worth the glance.)

1985 – Bring the opposite together

1992 – Black and White

This last one has been forbidden in Italy. Too provocative. Apparenlty, religion is not always about love…

1993 – The Dark side

Toscani choses a more realistic approach. The pictures are not Photoshoped, and he wants to see terrible world conditions exactly how they are. It is shocking, it even sometimes bring disgust. The AIDS ones are especially violent.

It is interesting to notice that Toscani breaks one of the simplest marketing norm: he associates the brand products with strongly negative events. But there as to be an exception to every rule. 

2000 – Death Penalty

This campaign was the last one for Toscani. Benetton decided that he was going too far. He went to the US, and took pictures of hundreds of convicted persons. He finally published 10 pictures.

 But the US banned it. It was too difficult to have this problem put in front of their eyes. Always easier to deny it, and to not see the faces of the people you send to death.

However, Toscani did not follow the rules, because it did not alert the people he pictured that they would end up in a Benetton advertisement. He did not respect their privacy, and was suited by some of them.

But even worse for Benetton, this campaign led to commercial complications: some American companies decided to terminate their contracts with the brand. Benetton lost money, Benetton fired Toscani. Marketing activism has its limits. It is not genuine generosity, and if it does not lead to profit, it can just be shut down.

Toscani was replaced by a communication company called La Fabrica, which is trying to stay in Toscani's spirit. Their Unhate campaign, which represented world leaders kissing each other, had huge repercussions. Commitment, or brand strategy? To be continued. 

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