Shock has been Oliviero Toscani's most well-used device in his 18 years in charge of Benetton's image. Now he has art-directed the biggest shock of all: his departure from the company whose ordinary woolies have been powerfully enhanced by his extraordinary vision and imagination. In the bitchy world of the media, Toscani is as much reviled as he is admired. However, no one argues that he is anything other than a highly original talent. So much so, in fact, that I believe he is a genius.
Like most "creatives" Toscani is very much his own invention: a "self-proclaimed genius", according to New York's Jerry Della Femina, no mean proclaimer himself. In the Seventies the 54-year-old Toscani was a fashion photographer, but in 1983 he stepped aside from the weary flock of lensmen with their wind machines and leggy models to become, on behalf of Benetton, an impresario of public outrage.
Maybe Toscani became jaded with 20 years of high-octane smooching, of silly women in dark glasses and the queasy endemic corruption of the fashion industry. As a bit of self-invention, the fashion photographer with a conscience is, after all, quite a creative concept. There is an alternative view that Toscani is a tireless self-promoter and brazen controversialist who simply wanted new worlds to conquer.
For Benetton, Toscani created the world's most outrageous advertising. To say that he rewrote the rules suggests he knew what they were in the first place. If he did, he wasn't interested. Toscani's copulating horses, kissing nuns, black breasts feeding white infants, declining Aids patients, blood-stained combat fatigues, KGB busts, electric chairs, albino zulus and guerrillas with gaffer-taped Kalashnikovs gripping thigh bones would never have passed the focus groups who decide the style of the majority of consumer advertising. Instead, as a private family company, Benetton was able to give Toscani the freedom that other art directors cannot reach. His work excites admiration, annoyance, envy and disgust in unequal measure.
A truly shocking thing about Toscani's ads is that they do not feature the product. One interpretation of Toscani's ads was that they anticipated a mood where status concerns seemed old-fashioned and helped direct consumers towards selfless states of being rather than selfish and venal acquisitiveness. And besides, if the product is not very exciting, why not try something else?
Whatever, Toscani's work for Benetton has consistently caused outrage: in 1984 a multi-racial ad divided the South African media and the year after that interest groups in the US protested about a campaign that showed Jewish and Arab boys embracing. In 1989 American blacks misinterpreted a picture which showed black and white hands cuffed together. Toscani had meant "We're in this together", but overlooked unfortunate penitential associations.
A snogging nun and priest had to be withdrawn in Italy in 1991. The following year, thanks to Toscani and some huge posters of newborn infants at Vauxhall Cross, London commuters were more thoroughly exposed to the sight of a howling infant besmirched with vernix caseosa than the whole maternity department of nearby St Thomas's Hospital. The Advertising Standards Authority insisted on the withdrawal of this ad, but not before it had annoyed absolutely everybody: liberals thought it exploitative, conservatives saw it as sacriligeous. Toscani simply said "Britain and Italy are tired countries".
But still you want to know how his Benetton campaigns were meant to benefit the company. I had the chance to ask this when he was shooting a Benetton catalogue in Paris. His reply was simple: it made a valuable long-term contribution to the company's most valuable intangible asset: its image capital. Toscani explained: "I am just trying to be a professional person. I am a photographer and photographers want to communicate something with images. To communicate is added value. You know, I don't find it so strange. Every company communication is based on on human emotion. When you buy a beautiful model what has it got to do with the product?"
Up to the new-born baby, Toscani had taken all the campaign pictures himself, but then he started using the international network of poster sites as though he was a picture editor. And his later campaigns using veteran news photographers elevated Benetton from a vague concern with knitwear to a more strident concern with morals. Thus, in the Toscani interpretation, an idiosyncratic style of advertising became one of Benetton's own products rather than one of its support services.
So, I asked him if his reinterpretation of advertising was so clever, why had no one copied him: "I think to make a very simple thing is very difficult. It is much easier to copy something complicated. Look at great design. I mean a Breuer chair. Impossible. You can't copy something as elemental as that: it becomes a Breuer chair. Anybody tries to copy my style, it becomes a Benetton ad."
And now Toscani has left Benetton. Maybe he has become as bored with advertising as he once was with fashion photography. Maybe the outrageous "We, On Death Row" campaign was his suicide note. Certainly, these creative executions have wounded the perpetrators in the foot.
Death Row features an unsavoury bunch of Missouri's convicted murderers, art-directed somewhat sympathetically, and still does not feature sweaters. Launched in February with a supplement to Tina Brown's Talk magazine, a scandal of purest Toscani ensued: the Parents of Murdered Children pressure group campaigned outside Benetton's Fifth Avenue HQ. Retailers were horrified.
Toscani said: "I don't regret campaigning for something that is in the Ten Commandments. Anything that is at all interesting in our society is going to produce an interesting reaction." That reaction included the assemblies of California and Pennsylvania calling for boycotts of Benetton shops and Missouri is suing the company about false pretenses about getting access to the convicts.
Toscani might have survived all of this controversy, but when Sears Roebuck repudiated a new franchising contract, which promised to save Benetton's faltering business in America, even Luciano Benetton (who once told him "never let anybody interfere with what you do... not even me" had had enough of shocking creativity.
So, too, had some of New York's conservative advertising community. Hamptons restaurateur, Jerry Della Femina, who also runs an ad agency called Della Femina/Jeary, told The Wall Street Journal that Toscani should be behind bars and sentenced to a lethal injection of red ink for producing tasteless and ineffective advertising. In his classic Reality in Advertising (1961) Rosser Reeves insisted that the "true role of advertising is to get the business away from his competitors". In that sense Toscani failed: Benetton had less than 5 per cent of the US markets, now has even less and struggles for credibility elsewhere. Neither smart enough to be stylish nor young enough to be dangerous, it looks middle aged. Streetlife has passed it by.
And so has Toscani. He is now to be found as creative director of Talk magazine. Here he can replicate what he (and the late Tibor Kalman) achieved for Colors, Benetton's house magazine that did a memorable photographic survey of genitalia. Colors was informal, anarchic and inventive, an amalgam of pop anthropology, style watching, street iconography and eye-popping photography.
This will be Toscani's fourth invention of himself. Is he a sincere genius or an opportunistic charlatan? Toscani told me: "You can say that you are angry with Benetton, but you can't ignore it." Of course, you can say exactly the same about Toscani.
Stephen Bayley is a design consultant and authorReuse content