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New Book of Diesel Ads Pushes the Edge

Diesel ads blend lifestyle and controversy.

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“Most of them could still work today,” Renzo Rosso said of Diesel’s ads from the last 30 years, which were in turns both groundbreaking and controversial.

Flipping through the book “XXX Years of Diesel Communication,” Rosso said he “relived the emotions” he felt at the time of each campaign. The tome is a compendium of the images that have shaped and reflected the company’s path as it grew into a global lifestyle brand. Well aware of the impact the photos had, Rosso conceded that “when you start down a new road, the first steps are hard and not many people understand you.”

Being misunderstood clearly never worried Rosso, though. Diesel’s ads have included photographs of two sailor men kissing passionately (spring 1995); one urging viewers to drink urine in the “Save Yourself” campaign for fall 2001, and showed an African-American man pinning down at least three Caucasian women — given the number of legs and boots embracing his naked body (fall 2005). “This one was criticized, but I felt I had to do it,” Rosso said simply, shrugging his shoulders.

“Diesel invented a new language to communicate, which was initially not connected to the product,” said Stefania Saviolo, co-director of the Master in Fashion, Experience and Design Management program at Milan’s Bocconi University. “It was a brave move, because they were the first to approach the lifestyle message.”

Diesel focused each campaign on its motto: “For Successful Living,”

“Eventually, clothing and accessories became more central, but Diesel maintained an innovative message, in line with its style,” said Saviolo.

“Diesel is constant in its mood, innovation and creativity,” said Luca Scaini, professor of international communication and marketing at Polimoda Institute in Florence. In reference to the brand’s “Global Warming” campaign by Terry Richardson for spring 2007, where, for example, New York is shown submerged by water, Scaini underscored how Diesel adroitly brings forth the message: “Will Diesel save the world or will it last beyond the world we know? The truth is in the brand: Diesel lives on.” Scaini said the contradiction lies in the fact that the images are “extraordinarily relaxing and pleasing,” in contrast with the message they should be transmitting.

The anniversary book, published by Rizzoli, includes images by photographers such as David LaChapelle, Ellen von Unwerth, Terry Richardson, Finlay McKay and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot. Although Rosso refrains from electing his favorite campaign, he easily dismisses “The Future” ads for spring 2005 and the reasons afford a glimpse into his modus operandi: “Everyone is dancing on the streets, it’s too complex and busy. I don’t have a feeling for it,” he said.

Most of the campaigns are in color, except for the latest, for fall 2008, shot by John Scarisbrick. “We did colors in the Nineties, when everyone was doing black and white,” Rosso recalled.

There are also a number of previously unpublished photos, such as one portraying members of the Catholic, Jewish and Muslim faiths shot by Henrik Halvarsson for fall 2005 against the backdrop of what appears to be a desert. “It was just too sensitive an issue to tackle,” Rosso admitted.

And while some observers might disagree, given the outcry Diesel’s ads have generated over the years, Rosso said he draws the line at bad taste. “Irony yes, but never bad taste.”

That said, showing his inclination for controversy hasn’t waned, Rosso has just given the green light to a video clip he himself describes as “borderline,” which is currently airing on the company’s Web site. Playing on the triple X pun, the video is a revisited version of various porn clips, where colorful cartoon characters are superimposed on the original images. The result? One million viewers on the first day, according to Diesel.

Rosso, who invests 7 percent of the company’s sales in advertising and communication, has recently explored other media, for example launching Diesel’s innerwear line last year with a five-day reality show on the Internet held in a hotel room in Madrid. “The Internet allows a more direct dialogue with our customers,” said Rosso.

The company’s anniversary party will also be broadcast live on the site. Last year, Diesel also experimented with a runway show at Pitti Uomo, Florence’s international men’s wear exhibition, showing holograms on the catwalk rather than real-life models.

Next up? “My dream is to do a soap opera for the Internet, our very own ‘Dallas’ in the Diesel spirit, in a modern and fresh way,” said Rosso.

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