Shocking genius behind Benetton adverts to use same tactics in anti-smoking campaign

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The Independent Online

The photographer Oliviero Toscani, who used images such as copulating horses and a dying Aids patient to sell Benetton jumpers, once said only a fashion chain had the courage to employ him.

Yesterday, the World Health Organisation joined those prepared to harness his controversial genius by recruiting him for a campaign to combat smoking.

The Italian, who parted company with Benetton after a publicity drive featuring killers on Death Row badly backfired, will be asked to dream up adverts to dissuade smokers.

The move is a departure for Toscani who, after 18 years in retail has decided to devote himself to wider issues. Last month, he addressed a WHO conference on banning tobacco advertising.

A spokeswoman for the WHO in Geneva said: "We are in the middle of discussions about doing something together for a future campaign against smoking. We are using one of his posters in our latest campaign and he has expressed a strong interest in doing more. Naturally, it will entail his expertise in the advertising field."

If Toscani's previous efforts are anything to go by, the resulting posters are likely to be some of the most hard-hitting public health campaigners have used.

During his partnership with Benetton, Toscani, 61, made a point of ruffling feathers by using images linked to social causes more meaningful than the mass-selling of knitwear.

The photographer, who had previously worked for Vogue, Elle and Harper's Bazaar, was recruited by Luciano Benetton, head of the £1.4bn company, in 1983 with a free hand to sell the brand. What followed was a series of images that made Benetton a by-word for shock tactics.

In the Nineties, the Vatican protested when models dressed as a priest and nun were shown kissing.

That was followed by ever- more flamboyant imagery, including a dying Aids patient in a Christ-like pose and the bloodied clothing of a victim of the Bosnian war. Each had the Benetton logo in the corner. But while even his most staunch critics admit Toscani changed advertising, he went too far even for Benetton in 2000 with a campaign entitled We on Death Row, showing 26 condemned murderers. The idea was to highlight concern over the death penalty.

When the parents of a victim of one of the killers who abducted, raped and tortured their son saw the murderer on a billboard, they started a petition condemning Benetton.

The protests spread to picketing branches of Sears, an American chain store, which promptly annulled a new $100m (£70m) supply deal with Benetton, curtailing the company in a main market.

Once a series of lawsuits for distress to victims' families started arriving, Toscani's position was untenable. Benetton apologised and its creative director left under a cloud.

The WHO said it was still negotiating the details of its agreement with the bearded advertising expert, although his first work could follow later this year in a campaign against tobacco promotion.

In the meantime, the United Nations agency has provided its first glimpse of the sort of imagery it might expect from a Toscani who has swapped pullovers for nicotine patches.

A poster originally designed by the Italian and revived for a current WHO campaign shows a close-up cross-section of a human body ravaged by the effects of smoking.