The colorful dissenter of Benetton

Oliviero Toscani of Colors and Talk magazines talks about media hypocrisy, corporate responsibility and why fashion makes us stupid.

Published April 17, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Oliviero Toscani is sitting in a rickety chair, hunched over a telephone, looking slightly weary. We're at Studio Pin-up, a cavernous photo studio in Paris where Toscani -- accompanied by his kids, a loyal band of colleagues and a coterie of hip, young models -- is shooting the next Benetton catalog. Above us, an upstairs loft has been converted into a makeshift graphic design space where the entire catalog will be laid out over the course of a week. Toscani later banters with his models and hovers over his camera. At one point there is a discussion with a hairstylist about cutting his daughter's hair in the style of a famous Italian personality to photograph in a spoof; his daughter, a wispy, refined preteen, is not so sure. There is laughter.

It is hard not to be charmed by Toscani, though it is easy to see why many people are not. Labeled by many the "bad boy of advertising," he is opinionated, irreverent, sometimes bombastic and often contradictory. I, for one, was never particularly moved by Toscani's work for Benetton -- the multicolored condoms, the horses mating, the newborn babies -- until the early '90s, when a campaign featured dying AIDS patient David Kirby.

Kirby's completely ravaged, emaciated body surrounded by hefty, fleshy, grieving relatives was almost medieval in its pathos, and yet it had the slightly stiff, theatrical quality of figures in a wax museum. (Which is why, at first glance, I wasn't sure if the image was even real.) Once I noticed Benetton's little green rectangular logo floating discreetly on the bottom of the billboard, I thought, Oh, this is advertising. Or is it? What exactly is Benetton doing here? Selling knitwear? Is Toscani waging a social crusade or has he simply found the perfect shock-value advertising strategy to bolster Benetton's corporate brand identity? Is he exploiting the sick and the dying or is he legitimately increasing public awareness of critical social issues?

These questions have underscored all of Toscani's subsequent campaigns, inciting fresh outrage along the way. And there is no one simple answer. For every person who detests Toscani there is another who admires his work.

"Toscani is on another planet. I think his work is sick and unhealthy," says Dominique Anginot, a photographer and president of Lux Modernis, a French advertising company. "I understand the combat he's leading here with these types of images, and I appreciate his iconoclasm, but what's sick here is marrying these high-impact social images with futile consumer products, like sweaters. It's disrespectful of the public. Joel Peter Witkin (another famous photographer) does extremely disturbing photos of images made with cadavers and body parts, but he's not defending any moral or mercantile code. Toscani is doing both, and that's dishonest."

Others are not so dismissive. Many have applauded (and awarded) Toscani's work and do not see a contradiction in mixing social activism or commentary with advertising. In an industry where selling your soul to peddle product is par for the course, Toscani has had the good fortune of being able to communicate in ways unthinkable to a traditional multinational corporation. (Could we imagine, for example, Procter & Gamble using starving African babies in its Pampers advertising?)

Thanks to Benetton's owner, Luciano Benetton, Toscani (who is a photographer, not an advertising executive) was given carte blanche to use the company's advertising platform as his canvas. And since Toscani is concerned that we are moving farther and perilously away from reality, it is no surprise that reality features prominently, if not exclusively, in his work. Human heart, war, the bloodstained shirt of a dead Slavic soldier -- Toscani presents life with no holds barred.

His magazine, Colors, which is published in seven editions and eight languages, is essentially a compendium of hardcore, in-your-face reality with no advertising and little if any commentary -- just the stark reality of a world many of us do not want to acknowledge, let alone live in.

Curiously, the more Toscani's work has strayed from the product being sold and assaulted us with reality, the more controversy it has stirred up. Toscani is seemingly indifferent to all this, particularly when it comes to his detractors. "I don't care about rejection," he says. "Actually, it's a big honor."

If this is true, then Toscani is basking in the glory of his latest controversy, which has elicited widespread and aggressive rejection: Twenty-six-year-old death-row inmate Jeremy Sheets stares out from billboards with a look both placid and disturbing. His impending execution might have gone unnoticed were it not for Toscani, who has immortalized Sheets and several other death-row inmates in his latest Benetton campaign. Among other things, the campaign has resulted in complex legal battles and the loss of Sears as a Benetton client. "Pft," says Toscani about the latter, waving his hand dismissively. At one moment he seems fashionably apathetic; at other times he passionately defends the issues at stake in his campaigns.

After spending time with Toscani, my impression is that he is very comfortable with the seeming contradictions in his nature; as far as provocation is concerned, it has always been part of his palette. In the late '60s and '70s he was hanging out with Andy Warhol. He has worked for and/or remains friends with people who have married commercial fortune with social activism, including Doug Tompkins, the co-founder of Esprit, who sold his fashion empire to create a vast self-sustaining "eco-retreat" in Chile to save the rain forests. Nearly 20 years ago his work for Jesus Jeans (notably an ad of his then girlfriend sticking her butt in the camera) prompted important Italian social critics to write prolifically about Toscani and his position on sex, advertising and the Roman Catholic Church. Given Toscani's personal orientation and nature, one can only imagine that if he hadn't met Mr. Benetton, he would have invented him.

But all this doesn't explain why so many people are so concerned about Toscani's work. His mixing of problematic social issues with advertising may be in deeply questionable taste, but does that mean that we should prefer the warm-and-fuzzy advertising of seriously scary multinationals like, say, Monsanto?

In the end, Toscani's work may be a form of cynicism, or it may be a vehicle for stirring up debate around social issues. Or it may be both. Lillian Hellman once said: "Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth." Toscani would most likely agree.

What prompted you to develop the death-row campaign?

I always asked myself, "How can a civilized country still have such a procedure?" I find it ridiculous. It's not a question of being American or Italian or German. It's just a question of being civilized.

What do you say to people who feel you've emphasized the humanity of death-row inmates at the expense of their victims and the victims' families?

I say, is it bad to do that? Is that a solution -- to take away humanity, to kill people? Is that human? I don't see how people can support coldblooded execution. I don't think that's human.

You've also been criticized for using advertising as a platform for communicating a certain morality while increasing Benetton's bottom line.

Anything you do, even if you write a song -- you can write an engaged and concerned song and sell a lot of records. That happens, right? A lot of American folk singers did that. They made some incredible songs and they became millionaires. And I don't care if they became millionaires. I like their songs. I don't want to make the world better. I'm just trying to make good songs.

And yet Benetton is one of the few companies that take these kinds of advertising risks.

For me it's just normal. That's the way I think, that's the way I live, that's the way I function. I'm very privileged and very lucky to be able to live the way I live, and work the way I work. I'm one of the few, I know. So somehow I feel compelled to do what I do because that's my way of being.

But aren't you exploiting social issues to increase Benetton's brand recognition? Isn't there a contradiction here or at least a problematic relationship?

Listen, a doctor who works with cancer, an oncologist -- does he exploit cancer? He's a rich man because he's a doctor. But do you think when he sees a patient he rejoices and says, "Ah, finally here's somebody with cancer?" Or Frank Gehry the architect, when he's doing a building for Coca-Cola -- do people ask him if he's doing this beautiful building so that Coca-Cola will sell more? Is he exploiting Coca-Cola to do architecture? I think this is a very old way of thinking. I'm exploiting, yes, and I want to exploit in the right way.

When Life magazine makes a cover about war, it makes the cover to inform, but also to sell the magazine and to sell the advertising pages inside the magazine -- Chivas Regal and all the others. So Time magazine and all the others make a cover to inform and to sell. To do what I do, I do that to sell but also to inform. And as soon as you inform, people point a finger at you and say, "You are exploiting!" No. It's the people who don't even inform [who are exploiting]. It's Prada bullshit, or Gap bullshit, or Chanel. They don't even inform. They make people stupid. I don't care about the rejection; I'm not afraid to be rejected. Actually, it's a big honor in this world.

You once said that death is the last pornographic issue. Can you explain?

Death is not something we deal with in a relaxed way. Like sex -- why is sex pornographic? Sex is not pornographic at all. We just don't deal with sex in a relaxed way. Anything we don't deal with in a relaxed way is pornographic. War is pornographic. War is one of the most pornographic human activities that exist.

Americans don't give a fuck about death. Nobody talks about death. Everybody's immortal there, especially in advertising. Everyone is beautiful, young, sexy. Everyone wants to have a one-hour orgasm. There is a way now to have a one-hour orgasm. Can you imagine? What a bore! What's the point?

But you've spent a great deal of time in America.

Oh, yes, this is my country. And this is the place, because you can say anything you want in America. There is the worst, but there is also the best, in America. When Europeans talk about America it makes me laugh. They don't know. America is anything you can say, do, be ... There are the dumbest but also the most intelligent people in America. Americans are great because they get so mad, they get so passionate.

Do you like working for Tina Brown? [Toscani is creative director for Brown's Talk magazine.]

I love it. You know, they say that I'm a male chauvinist. I'm working with one of the most difficult women in the world and we get along fantastically. Great woman. Great woman.

So, what about these claims that you're a male chauvinist?

I think that most women are dumb -- not because they are dumb but because they play dumb. They should be home taking care of their children, educating society. Society is missing the mother, the education of the mother. They'd rather check their office instead of checking their children's school bag.

It's very important. We are missing a whole foundation of mothers in society. Women are giving up an incredible responsibility to become what? Managers? Now women become generals, they go to the army, they are policemen. Fuck! It's too much! I mean, women in uniform? I had incredible respect for women because they didn't go to work. Now they even go to war, they bomb, they kill. Women didn't do that in the past. Now they do. Well, great, fantastic, my compliments. You've joined the group of idiots called men.

So feminism is a disappointment?

It's totally wrong. Now women want the same bullshit as men. It's wrong, all wrong.

I've worked for women's magazines. They make me laugh. If I was a woman, I'd be embarrassed to be treated like that. Look at Vogue, and [Harper's] Bazaar, and those kinds of fashion magazines. Basically women are stupid because they think they can become more beautiful by copying those kinds of idiotic images.

But as a photographer you worked for these magazines and produced these same images.

Of course. That's the reason why I say that. Everybody is afraid to be rejected. Because if they are what they are, they're probably going to be rejected. If they have a nose that doesn't conform to fashion magazines, if they're a little fatter than the models in magazines, they're afraid that they're going to be rejected. It goes on like that. So stupid people see beauty only in beautiful things. It's an old dada expression.

You've spoken out against what you call the "monoculture." Isn't Benetton part of that monoculture as well?

Yeah, sure. But I try my best to expose that monoculture by doing the opposite. My magazine called Colors shows the differences in the world, the rest of the world. Because there is always the rest of the world that people don't want to look at. I try to speak a language that people say is against the interest of the company. There was an article in the French daily Le Monde [as well as an article by Jerry Della Femina in the Wall Street Journal] that said that if I continue doing that, Benetton is going to disappear. I don't think so. On the contrary, people are much smarter than advertising people and consumption pushers think they are. People are not just consumers.

You've compared your relationship with Benetton founder Luciano Benetton to the pope and Michelangelo. Tell me about your relationship with Mr. Benetton.

He's the pope. It's true. There's a relationship there -- we're friends. We've been working together for 18 years. We don't have to check each other out. I know he's a good man, a good owner. I know what he does, that he does quality. He doesn't pollute as much as an entrepreneur in car manufacturing.

What he does is simple. It's first-degree industrialism. Pure cotton, pure wool. He doesn't speculate by producing in the Far East like certain American companies, because it's cheaper than in the United States. At Benetton, everything is produced in Italy for Italy and for rich foreign countries. What is produced in Turkey or China or Brazil is produced on location for the local market. You also give local people the opportunity to work, produce and consume the goods that they produce. So I think on that level the company is the best company in the world. I've checked these things out. I'm very concerned about these kinds of things, and that's the primary reason why I work. And of course the company has the kind of politics that gives me the possibility to do what I want.

Has Mr. Benetton ever responded to one of your campaign ideas by saying, "No, now you're going too far"?

No, never. Going too far compared to what? I don't understand that. There's no such thing as going too far. If you are intelligent, you can go as far you can want. There is no such thing as going too far. I hope we're going very far, even further. Going too far ...

Do you think companies like Benetton are companies of the future?

Oh, yeah. They have to be, financially, economically. I think it is the only way we can have a reasonable society. Otherwise it will be the Wild West. You can't, for example, exploit child labor because you want to buy your shoes for $10 all your life and you don't know or care where they're made, and at the same time give to charity -- to Amnesty International or to some starving children's foundation in the Far East. I think this way of being should be over. We should buy our shoes for $25, and instead of buying three pairs we buy one pair -- better made, more consciously made. The problem is not to produce more and to consume more, but to produce better and consume better. For example, I have too many shirts! I have enough shirts for three lives!

You must have a lot of nice sweaters, too.

Yeah, enough for three lives. But why?!

Most people aren't aware of the scope of social programs Benetton has sponsored in conjunction with your campaigns. The AIDS work with ACT UP, the clothing redistribution project, the work with anti-apartheid groups in South Africa ...

Yeah, but saying that makes everybody feel so comfortable. I hate to make advertising by saying that it goes to charity. Those companies that say "we gave a million dollars to such-and-such a charity ..." Bullshit! You shouldn't even pronounce that. I'm so angry at those people who make advertising about themselves by saying that they do charity. They are some of the biggest speculators in the world. They even speculate on charity.

That obviously bothers you.

Achk! I can't stand it. [Mocking] "Oh, we're doing an eight-course charity dinner." Fuck you! I hope your eight-course dinner is poisoned! You just have to do your work, and while you're doing your work you should be concerned about the quality of your work -- whether you're a plumber or whatever.

What other things are on your mind for future work?

Religion is something. Media is something. Media is just a bunch of bullshit. Media is the real advertising. And they belong to big companies. There are some newspapers and TV companies that can't talk about certain things because they belong to General Electric or some big gas company.

Speaking of religion, you're apparently inspired by medieval religious paintings, paintings where blood and death are much more present and graphic.

You walk into a church, it's like walking into a slaughterhouse. There's blood and thorns and hearts in hands. You go to [churches in] Rome and you see incredible blood all over. There is a famous painting of a woman holding her dead child in her arms. What a subject! You can't take a picture of that! Today there's a whole problem about artificial insemination. Well, the Virgin Mary was artificially inseminated. From the very beginning. I mean, think about it. What an incredible idea!

Do you still call yourself a radical libertarian?

More than that. I'm a total anarchist. I've never been into a bank in my life. I refuse.

So how do you manage your money?

My wife! The best way to get rid of money is to get married.

Anything else you want to say about your views or your recent campaign?

I don't know why everybody is so concerned about the business of Benetton. They lost Sears, but they got some incredible letters from people who were angry at Sears for dropping Benetton. Everybody's so concerned about the business, that we might lose clients. I mean what the heck, who cares? I think it's very good that we lost Sears. People are talking about loyalty to our clients. Pft!

Read this [he refers to a quote on paper], I think it's great:

"The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

That's it. That's what we're talking about when we talk about my work.

By Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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