TREVISO, Italy — After 17 years, Oliviero Toscani has returned to Benetton, but it’s as if he never left. The feisty photographer is injecting a fresh dose of energy to the brand with a new communication campaign for the Italian fashion group.
Just don’t call it advertising.
“That’s an old way of thinking, we don’t do that,” said Toscani, speaking at the headquarters of Benetton’s Fabrica, the creative think tank he created in 1994.
Toscani doesn’t have many filters, is very direct and opinionated, but at the same time he tosses questions out, carefully watching for reactions.
“Did you suffer? Did you miss me?” he said about his absence from Benetton. “But you still remember what Benetton did 20 years ago. Do you remember what H&M did 20 years ago? Or any other brand 20 years ago? No. Why do you remember? I am here to ask you, not you me.”
Toscani recalls those times as “very exciting because nothing was really planned. If that happened it’s because Luciano Benetton is a very special entrepreneur, he is not afraid to think that the company’s communication has to deal with the reality of society, not something that has no sense, and that a modern company has to understand what is going on in life, in human history. He really believes that we have to belong to our time, to the problems and what is conditioning society. A modern company is a very important player in a society. It’s not just the media that handles the truth, everybody must be aware of what is going on.”
Although the former chairman of the family-owned group no longer has any operative role, Luciano Benetton is behind Toscani’s latest campaign, bowing on Friday, which shows a primary school class made up of a multiracial group of children.
“We are all here, this is Luciano Benetton [pointing to a fair boy with curly hair], this is me, this is Carlo [Tunioli, president and chief executive officer of Fabrica], each one of us can say we are one of them. This is a primary school class in Italy, but I can go to France and it’s the same, in Germany it’s probably even bigger, in Spain, in Catalonia, too [laughing]. Benetton is in primary school. I thought this is a symbol to start from. We start again. These children, they are going to be the society of the future, you better look at them well, it’s not bulls–t, it’s not a fake priest with a fake nun [referring to one of his famous photos showing a kiss between the two], this is news for any newspaper today,” observed Toscani. “I think the big problem of society today is integration, if you don’t understand the huge problem of integration, we are going to miss the point. A company like this lives on integration, we are present worldwide, we have to understand everybody, all this kind of discrimination, racism is ridiculous.”
In a second image, the children are shown gathering around the teacher reading “Pinocchio.” “This is what they teach to the world,” sneered Toscani.
“Pinocchio, this is our Bible, our Messiah, Pinocchio is fake news.” Segueing into this timely topic, he said that “fake news has always existed, but nobody realized it.” He ticked off the Bible, “The Divine Comedy” and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Karamazov Brothers” among others, as fake news.
Asked if people will understand his latest campaign, Toscani looked peeved. “This is what I was always asked. Of course, they will understand.” Nor does he believe these images to be softer than his past work, which ranged from the portrayal of people on death row to a black horse mounting a white one. “The priest and nun [photo] is very soft, almost stupid, easy compared to this, but it provoked.” And he has no doubt this campaign will also be controversial. “Yeah, sure don’t worry, it will provoke.”
Toscani believes that, conversely to “everybody else,” Benetton and his work “never exploited the talent” of others, dressing George Clooney, for example. “That’s bulls–t, we don’t believe in that, we took people from the street, always, they were our models. At the same time, we took the problems of the street as our subject.”
He continued, claiming that “the brand is a very sophisticated one, not luxurious like Gucci, Pucci, Ciucci, that belong to a fraction of society, the rich or intelligent or specially educated.” Because Benetton targets the wealthy and educated woman as well as the schoolteacher with less means, but a sense of style, it is “a very complex brand to deal with and that’s what Benetton should be.”
He admitted that, due to the crisis and “a lot of things happening in society,” the company’s performance slowed down and its communication lost its grip. “If you want to be part of modern society, you have to belong to your time. What is the big news? How long do you have to be away to be away? Two hours, two days, 20 years? Forty years? I am approaching this without thinking of that. We went through a crisis, the world changing, immigration, a lot of problems and we are very aware of that. What we spoke about 20 years ago is today’s reality, integration, sex. Like journalists, we belong to our time. And that was not allowed in hypocrite advertising in fashion, where everyone is beautiful and great, it’s bulls–t. Those that seek ideas are those that have no ideas. Luciano and I live our time.”
Toscani waved away fashion’s traditional advertising campaigns. “Beauty in itself is very boring and it’s very boring how fashion shows beauty. It’s obvious.” He said it was “crazy” how the more a model is employed, the more she becomes expensive. “It should be the other way around, the more I rent a bike, the less I should pay,” he added with a laugh.
Social media, he claimed, is nothing new. “We always dealt with social media. Any media is social, a wall on the street, if you paint that [it becomes] social media,” but he conceded there are “more opportunities” today in terms of technology.
He also wondered why “there’s always someone that feels wounded or offended because they look at something. When I think of some photos that have been censored and look at them today, it makes me laugh and proves that censorship is always wrong.”
He claimed Benetton’s past work in communication has been recognized as worthy. “Why are you here? If we had not done provocative [ads] would you have been here? Why is provocation a bad word? What is the task of art and communication and education? It’s to provoke better communication, it is to provoke better understanding, better quality of life, a better society, and all that is not bad.”
Communication has been deeply conditioned by marketing rules, he lamented.
“I don’t know why they became rules, but this created major problems. News media are the first victims of marketing research that doesn’t really care about a better society, but about economy. This has made everything mediocre. Tell me which one is a good campaign. How many pages, how much money is spent to say nothing.”
He listed advertising agencies, creative directors, media strategists, characterizing them as “fog.” He admitted this “smoke” also clouded Benetton for a while. “It’s a system that polluted the company. Even if you are the most ecological person and you walk the streets, you pollute yourself by the air you breathe. Luckily Luciano understood with incredible courage to start again from scratch. Integration will be our future and it is not only about immigrants and racism, it’s a question of personal relation with what is surrounding you and what is outside — your family, school, town, country, history and background. This is what we are interested in and what we have always been interested in.”
The two new photos, he claimed, show that what Benetton said 30 years ago has become reality.
He stressed the distinction between a company that advertises and one that communicates. “Everybody advertises to sell a product, any company, a writer to sell a book, and also journalists. To sell is not bad, you have to face a market, but the fact is that you have to face also society’s problems. And we are very aware of that. We have a point of view, because we don’t belong just here or in Veneto, or in Italy, but everywhere. I didn’t choose to be born in Italy, but you can choose to be European and belong to the world. It’s stupid to close yourself in.”
To be sure, Toscani said in very practical terms that Benetton needs to sell and that the goal is to “bring back the magic to the shops. We have to sell, we are a serious, big, quality company with a lot of people working here.”
Addressing Benetton’s slowdown, he said “you realize that people are behind you and don’t keep up, some people get lost and you need younger people coming in and giving new energy. There are a lot of hand brakes pulling on the car, and the wheel is consumed, and we need to change the tires and do some painting, but we didn’t lose part of the magic.”
Toscani didn’t want to put a time frame to his collaboration with Benetton. “I don’t know, I live day by day. You cannot really plan your enthusiasm, if you do it, you mediocritize the quality and the quantity, but you know you want to do it. This is of course my wish and will, but you cannot plan creativity.”
He also emphasized the concept of freedom. “Why can’t you work with somebody and not be free? If you are not free, you are not good for the person you are working with. I want free people around me and Luciano is the same. When you are free, you produce your best. That doesn’t mean that if you are free you are going to do great work, though.”
Toscani has his views on politics, clearly not approving of Brexit or the Catalan independence movement. “I am not afraid and I think one day this will be Europe, but we still have to go through a lot of s–t, we are not smart enough, we still don’t realize that we are European.”
The future generations, he said, pointing to the children in the photo, could one day “organize a class action against Europe and how it treated their parents and grandparents when they came to Europe. I don’t want to be on trial and Benetton won’t be there.”
He had a bone to pick with the companies that now do “social campaigns. We never did, they want to exploit social problems while we went straight to the problem. 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.”
Toscani also took the opportunity to clear the air about the end of his work for Benetton in 2000, when rumors circulated about Luciano Benetton being angry about losing accounts in the wake of the photographer’s death row images. “That is absolutely not true, that is fake news. I told Luciano I was going to leave three years before I did, but I wanted to finish my work on the death penalty and it took me three years to do that. I wanted to have other experiences, and now suddenly our roads crossed again.”