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Who Is Oliviero Toscani Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2052 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Oliviero Toscani is a famous Italian photographer, born in 1942, well-known for his controversial media stunts. As of 1982, he will become mainly famous for his shocking United Colors of Benetton advertising campaigns. (Bouzet, 2003; Oliviero Toscani’s Official Website, 2012).

According to Oliviero Toscani’s official website, he studied photography and graphic design for four years at the Zurich University of Fine Arts.

Toscani started working as a fashion photographer for Elle, Vogue, Bazaar, Liberation and other successful magazines around the world. He also collaborated in advertising for worldwide brands, such as Esprit, Chanel or Toyota.

From 1982 to 2000, he was in charge of inventing an effective brand communication strategy for United Colors of Benetton and successfully managed “to turn Benetton into one of the most recognized brands in the world” (Oliviero Toscani’s official website, 2012).

Figure 1: Colors MagazineIn collaboration with Benetton, Toscani created and directed the magazine Colors in 1991 (Colors Magazine, 2012). This quarterly magazine publication “presents and discusses worldwide issues, such as AIDS, poverty and hunger” (Barela, 2003). http://behance.vo.llnwd.net/profiles12/1620519/projects/5547565/8532f5844721543d174fd6666a5ec60e.jpg

Three years later, Toscani conceived and directed Benetton’s communication research centre: Fabrica, a centre “designed to deal specifically with the communication goals of Benetton” (Barela, 2003).

Figure 2: Amen, by Costa GavrasToscani constantly jumped from one job to the other. According to his Official website, from 1999 to 2000, he became the creative director at Talk Miramax in New York, co-created the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, taught visual communications and wrote books about communications. http://img.over-blog.com/222×300/3/29/27/36/amen_costa_gavras.jpg

In 2002 he produced a public video for the World Economic Forum and designed the poster for the movie Amen by Costa Gavras (Bouzet, 2003).

According to The World of Photographer, in 2005 he created a controversial ad for the men clothes brand Ra-re showing homosexual men in their private moments.

Figure 3: Ra-re Advertising campaignIn 2007, he designed a shocking advertising campaign for No-l-ita where he photographed an anorexic French woman, Isabelle Caro, in order to fight against anorexia (Andy DB, 2007).http://sleepwalker.weblogg.no/images/ra_re_homoreklame.jpg


Figure 4: No Anorexia Campaign for No-l-ita

The same year, he started “Razza Umana”, an audio-visual project about human morphologies and human conditions in the world.


Finally, in 2010, Oliviero Toscani in collaboration with Professor Salvatore Settis and the FAI, began a “new project against the degradation of Italy” (Oliviero Toscani’s Official Website, 2012).

Figure 5: Poster of the Razza Umana ProjectEven if Oliviero Toscani is constantly criticised for his work that is sometimes considered as “non-moral”, he received numerous awards such as The Grand prize of UNESCO or four Golden Lion (Oliviero Toscani’s Official Website, 2012).

His philosophy

With all his different professions, Toscani always follows the same goal: to open people’s mind and to communicate about the reality of the world. (L’éducation du consommateur, 2006). He believes that advertising can also be used to promote important socio-political problems:

“Advertising is a “stupid” language: brands do not feed humanity, they eat it. However, Medias and Communication could really serve and enrich humanity. Hence my motivation to work in Advertising and try to create more interesting things, by making people think.” (Oliviero Toscani cited in L’éducation du public, 2006)http://ulfablabla.free.fr/images/juillet/benetton/benetton%200.jpg

Oliviero Toscani and United Colors of Benetton

Figure 6: Benetton’s ‘Sentenced to death’ ad campaignBy becoming the new Advertising Director of United Colors of Benetton, Toscani radically changed the perception of the company by its stakeholders. The photographer brought a new and innovative marketing approach to the brand with the use of provocative and shocking photographs about the reality of the world.

“We possess a unique tool to communicate around the world, since we are located in 120 countries, and it would be contemptuous to waste it for the promotion of our products. We chose to bet on the intelligence of our customers by devoting our advertising space to social issues rather than repetitive messages about our products. “(Luciano Benetton, CEO of Benetton cited in L’éducation du public, 2006).

The new communication strategy of the brand designed by Toscani is “based on the diversity-focused slogan integrated into the United Colors of Benetton campaigns” (Barela, 2003). In order to reduce costs, Toscani chose to use one single and uniform campaign worldwide. He selected advertisements “that would appeal to many cultures, races religions and lifestyles” (Barela, 2003).


Andersson, Hedelin, Nilsson and Welander, define ‘shock-advertising’ as: “the usage of violence in advertising [with] a rhetoric and stylistic method, which creates certain types of reactions”.

Toscani’s advertisements for Benetton show authentic pictures of the world. Some of the pictures may seem shocking or violent in some people’s eyes. For instance, one Benetton ad created by Toscani shows an AIDS patient on his death bed surrounded by his family. Another, pictures the bloody clothes of a dead Bosnian soldier. Finally, one of the most criticised ads in the USA shows various men sentenced to death looking straight into the camera.

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On another hand, other advertisements show private and emotional moments, such as a crying baby recently born still tied by his umbilical cord, a black woman breast-feeding a white baby, or a nun and a priest kissing. These advertisements do not show violence. However they might “bother” some people as they illustrate taboo topics in some communities (Barrela, 2003) or show scenes that people usually do not see.


Figure7: Benetton’s advertisement (born baby on the left, a nun and a priest kissing on the right)

Toscani uses human suffering to promote Benetton’s products (Barela, 2003). He also uses taboo topics and scandals around the world in order to provoke the audience and make people think about social and political issues. The use of such images is part of Toscani’s strategy to make people talk about Benetton’s campaigns and therefore constantly boost the awareness of the brand (Benetton at 40, 2006).

The fact that Toscani likes the concept of “shock-advertising” has also clearly been reflected through the campaign he designed for No-l-ita, an Italian fashion brand in 2007 (Andy DB, 2007). The provocative photographer published pictures of a naked woman suffering from anorexia and added the slogan “No Anorexia. No-l-ita” to denounce the fact that this illness is often “caused by the stereotypes imposed on women by the fashion world” (Andy DB, 2007).

Ethical issues: the World’s reaction to Toscani’s advertisements

According to George G. Brenkert, “advertisements have wide-ranging and significant impacts on individuals and society”. It is true that advertisers need to attract their potential customers’ attention. However the use of offensive advertisements might be irritating, annoying, displeasing or even insulting to some groups of people. (Brenkert, 2008).

Benetton’s communication strategy caused intense emotions to the general public. People have both honoured and criticised Benetton’s ads. Toscani’s advertising strategy for Benetton has been released worldwide, and therefore reached an incredible amount of different cultures, sub-cultures and communities. Benetton had to deal with numerous and different legal systems. Governments’ reaction often depended on the perception of the socio-political issue in the specific culture. When some cultures would accept the display of provocative ads, others would prohibit it. This point can easily be illustrated with the release of the nun and priest kissing advertisement: while the Vatican City highly damned this photograph, the United States of America did not protest in such an extreme way. (Barela, 2003)

Governments were not the only ones protesting against Toscani’s controversial ads. According to Barela, United Colors of Benetton’s retailers also complained about the communication strategy, accusing Oliviero Toscani and Luciano Benetton to cause an important drop in the clothes’ brand sales (Barela, 2003). Ads such as the U.S. death row inmates provoked the apparition of activist groups that protested against the use of such aggressive images (Barela, 2003).

According to Oliviero Toscani, even Luciano Benetton, the CEO of the company felt sometimes uncomfortable with Toscani’s communication strategy: “Even an inspired entrepreneur such as Luciano Benetton struggled to engage actions in depth in the social and political domain.” (Oliviero Toscani cited in L’éducation du public, 2006).


Figure 8: Benetton’s ad showing an AIDS victim surrounded by his family

One interesting case to analyse is the display of the ad showing an AIDS victim, David Kirby, about to die and surrounded by his family. While some AIDS organisations described the picture as “offensive, unethical and in a bad taste” and some magazines refused to publish the ad (Benetton at 40, 2006), the victim’s family explained that they felt grateful that a company like Benetton would help them communicate and fight against this disease (Benetton at 40, 2006).

Finally it is difficult to measure the exact impact on Benetton’s consumers. Some of them claimed that the controversial communication strategy discouraged them from buying Benetton’s products. However, other consumers “praised the unique advertisements that promote messages of racial equality” (Barela, 2003).

Conclusion: the fine line between Journalism and Marketing

“Finally, by using Benetton’s important means of communication, I managed to talk about important topics. However, this approach didn’t obtain unanimous agreement. The world of Advertising did not like to see war, child exploitation, pollution and AIDS on the first page” (Oliviero Toscani cited in L’éducation du public, 2006).

According to Brenkert, “Social Marketing is the use of marketing techniques to solve social problems or issues”. By designing controversial advertisements for companies such as Benetton or No-l-ita, the photographer used social advertising to do journalism and communicate about social and political issues.

This approach can bother the advertising world. However, in his book, Brenkert claims: “We know historically that at times some people must be ‘shaken-up’ and even offended in order for there to be change.” Oliviero Toscani wants to have a positive social impact on the world, by opening people’s mind about important and worldwide issues. His strategy remains impacting and contributed to the evolution of both Marketing and Society.

Word count: 1630 words


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