Media: The posters shock . . . but we all buy the knitwear: Benetton's ads may have turned stomachs, but they stick in consumers' minds. Patricia Clough meets the man who makes them

IN FIVE years' time, any advertisement that pretends a certain aftershave will get a beautiful girl into bed will make people snort with laughter. Any promise that a suit, a watch or a jewel brings social success will be a hopeless flop. And any suggestion that a particular car brings with it blissfully empty roads in gorgeous countryside will be treated as a crude lie.

So believes Oliviero Toscani, whose controversial ads for the United Colours of Benetton at least cannot be accused of using the hidden persuaders of sex, status, success, dreams. His work - a duck covered in black oil, a sobbing family around a dying Aids victim, a blood-smeared newborn baby with umbilical cord attached - has been banned in various countries, torn off walls and often condemned as indecent, irrelevant or violent.

But it has also been showered with praise and prizes and displayed in teenagers' bedrooms, and has inspired innumerable admiring theses. And, although Mr Toscani maintains this is not his immediate aim, it evidently pays. During a downturn in the clothing industry, Benetton is booming; in the first half of this year alone, its consolidated sales (46.7 million garments) were up by 7 per cent.

'The advertising industry has corrupted society,' he says angrily. 'It persuades people that they are respected for what they consume, that they are only worth what they possess.' He talks with horror of Piero Maso, a young Italian who bludgeoned his father and mother to death in order to inherit their money. 'He knew the names of 26 perfumes for men off by heart. He was a consumer addict.'

Mr Toscani has shaken the industry by declaring: 'One day there will be a Nuremberg trial of advertisers who have corrupted every form of communication. I will sit on it. I will be the prosecution and the public.' Dark-haired, bearded, passionate, with the nerviness of one who lives by ideas and air timetables, he is as destabilising as his images. He destroys cosy assumptions and turns ideas on their heads.

He reaches for a glossy magazine. Two pages show a watch and a suit by a famous Paris fashion house. 'These are for a woman who is afraid. They tell her that if she wears them, she will be accepted by society . . . Look at this (pointing to a poised, rich-looking model holding an expensive perfume). What is it telling you? They are all based on the emotions. They have nothing to do with the product.'

For Benetton, Mr Toscani once depicted bright clothes on youngsters of all races. Now he focuses increasingly on striking images of our times: graveyard crosses during the Gulf war, a ship overflowing with refugees, an electric chair, children in Third World slums; or simply striking, even shocking, images such as a beautiful nun and a priest kissing.

They show no products and no words, other than the company's name. The visual impact, however is unforgettable. Mr Toscani has been accused of exploiting human suffering, or social issues, for commercial gain. He hotly disputes this. 'I want to make people think. I want them to remember a name. I document what I can of our time. I don't do it to sell clothes. I do it because I believe in it.'

He is not, and never has been, politically involved, although one could have placed him on Italy's anti-conformist left of the Sixties and Seventies. The newborn baby, which upset many, is his favourite image, he says. 'It is a portrait of humanity. Everyone has been like that.'

Advertising will in future, he believes, focus less on products and more on creating an image for the manufacturer, keeping its name in the consumer's mind. It will be more honest, more concerned with life issues, simply 'communication . . . a bridge to something more important'.

Take a big British advertiser, Guinness, say. He has read that Britain has a high rate of wife-beating. 'I would do them a campaign about wife-beating.' Wouldn't that be depressing? 'It does not have to be. I would make the campaign fun. Or go to Mr Agnelli (head of Fiat). Tell him to give me the 1,100 billion lire ( pounds 500m) he spends on advertising and I'll do him a campaign about drugs, and I will even make it entertaining.'

But wouldn't this turn advertising into a socio-political manifesto? 'It is already. Every image has a social and political message.' But at present, he says, most are telling lies. 'In future, it won't be like that. What people are doing now (he gestures to the glossy magazine) will be ridiculous.'

But is it wrong for people to have dreams? 'No, but look what rotten dreams these are.'

Mr Toscani, a photographer by trade, was hired 10 years ago by Luciano Benetton, who decided that his highly individual views were what the company wanted. Whereas governments, city mayors and advertising ethics councils have banned Mr Toscani's pictures, Mr Benetton and his executives have given him total freedom, and are said never to have rejected a single advertisement.

Mr Toscani does no market research, has no way of gauging the sales impact of his work, and as long as profits continue to rise, he does not see why he should bother. Nevertheless, behind his outstanding originality lies a basic commercial logic. Benetton sells 8,500 different models of clothing a year in more than 100 countries, a vast range of varied clothes for different people in different climates. The problem was how to find a global strategy that would create a single recognisable image. The answer was colours - of the clothes and the people (usually photographed by himself), and more recently the issues - basic human images (often taken from the press) that speak to everyone.

It is also stunningly cheap and simple. Benetton, he says, spends 4 per cent of its turnover - some dollars 90m ( pounds 59m) on advertising, which he likes to compare with the huge budgets of firms such as Fiat or L'Oreal. The company's advertising - or, rather, communication - department consists of seven people, including the secretaries. Some of the hostility he gets from his own profession comes, he says, from large advertising firms 'because I have shown how you can produce successful campaigns with so little'.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Guru Careers: Sales Director / Business Development Manager

£35 - 45K + COMMISSION (NEG): Guru Careers: A Sales Director / Business Develo...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - Manchester - Urgent Requirement!

£30000 - £35000 per annum + 20 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Marketi...

Sauce Recruitment: Senior Management Accountant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: Working for a independently owne...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker