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)