Benetton ad shift expected in the wake of Toscani exit

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Benetton Group's advertising is turning from death row and heading back to the runway with the departure of the marketer's longtime creative director, Oliviero Toscani.

The Italian apparel company had already begun running ads this spring that showcased its colorful clothes, but that approach was upstaged by the controversial "We on Death Row" corporate campaign featuring prison inmates. With Mr. Toscani out of the picture, industry observers expect Benetton will shift to more traditional fashion advertising as it tries to perk up sales.

AN AMICABLE PARTING

Mr. Toscani would not comment, but a joint statement with Benetton owner Luciano Benetton implied he left to "take on new projects." Mr. Toscani, who had overseen Benetton's advertising since 1982, last year also became creative director of Talk, the magazine joint venture of Miramax Film Corp. and Hearst Magazines. Talk carried the most extensive version of the "Death Row" campaign as a 100-page separate brochure sent with its February issue.

Benetton's creative responsibility will fall to Fabrica, a creative laboratory founded by Mr. Toscani in 1994 and backed by Benetton. The group works on communications projects including Benetton's Web site (benetton.com), and its magazine (Colors), as well as for other companies.

`NEW DIRECTION'

A Benetton spokesman in Italy said Mr. Toscani will also end his relationship with Fabrica.

"It's fair to say we're moving in a new direction," said a spokesman for Benetton USA. Fabrica is already developing the marketer's spring 2001 campaign, which will be Benetton's first post-Toscani effort. The company ran a spring 2000 campaign in fashion magazines that showcased its clothing line.

Mr. Toscani's initial Benetton ads in the 1980s were attention-grabbing combinations of multicultural models. But in the 1990s the ads became progressively edgier and more controversial, including shots of a nun kissing a priest, a dying AIDS patient and the bloody uniform of a Bosnian soldier.

The ads initially succeeded in raising the brand's profile, but eventually began to cause costly rifts with consumers and retailers. In 1995, Benetton was sued by German retailers, which said the ads sabotaged their sales efforts.

"He has left a famous brand badly besmirched," said Kurt Barnard, president, Barnard's Retail Trend Report. "Many of the things done in that name have encountered a great deal of public resentment, hostility and boycott. It can be overcome, but not easily."

Benetton went against the mainstream, "but if you go off the mainstream, you'd better make sure what you're doing reaches a target audience that will appreciate it and support you," Mr. Barnard said.

SEARS' PRIVATE-LABEL LINE

The Benetton brand in the U.S. peaked in the mid-1980s, when the company opened more than 600 stores; it now has about 200 U.S. outlets. The company was counting on a deal with Sears, Roebuck & Co. to revitalize its U.S. presence, but that effort collapsed.

Sears last summer launched a private-label line, Benetton USA, as it attempted to turn around its own sagging image. The line sold well, and was expected to generate some $100 million in sales in its first year. But that came to a sudden end this February with the Death Row campaign.

Within weeks of the first ads, Benetton was hit by a lawsuit from the state of Missouri, which claims Mr. Toscani and his collaborators lied to officials of the state's Department of Corrections to gain access to the inmates. A week after the Missouri suit was filed and victims' rights groups picketed a Texas Sears store (AA, Feb. 21), the retailer ended the Benetton USA deal.

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo, Eric Lyman.

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