Jerry and Oliviero duke it out over what's vital in advertising

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Finally, the battle has been joined. Oliviero Toscani, in his arrogant and belligerent manner, has forcefully stated the case for the anti-sales school of advertising that has attracted so many worshipful disciples in this country and around the world.

What goaded Mr. Toscani, the creative director of Benetton, into so eloquently enunciating his views on the purpose of advertising was an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal last month by Jerry Della Femina on Benetton's latest ad series.

Mr. Della Femina did not ease into his critique of Benetton's much publicized capital punishment ads. His WSJ article began: "If the death sentence were handed out to those who are guilty of producing excruciatingly tasteless, ineffective advertising and inflicting it on the masses, Oliviero Toscani, the self- proclaimed `genius' behind Benetton advertising, would be appearing in his own anti-capital punishment ads. In the cell next to him, also sentenced to death by lethal injection of red ink, would be his accomplice, Luciano Benetton."

For some reason, Mr. Toscani took exception to Mr. Della Femina's remarks, and last week he fired off a letter to the WSJ. Mr. Toscani was especially put off by Mr. Della Femina's assertion that "as an advertising man, I've spent my life trying to sell products by making a friend of the consumer."

Mr. Toscani seemed to think this approach was woefully outdated. "Any advertising man who is so poorly informed about trends in international advertising and is so attached to an antiquated and pathetic image of the `door-to-door salesman' can only stir a sense of compassion in even the hardest of hearts -- like mine, for example."

And then Mr. Toscani presented his dangerous and distorted views on what constitutes effective advertising. "While the international community of communications is involved in a serious debate about the role and function of a brand -- about the validity of an industry's moving beyond the market context to progressively enter other spheres of social interaction, such as politics, culture and humanitarian activities -- Jerry Della Femina pops up and dusts off theories out of 1940s marketing manuals. He's the only one left who believes that advertising has to showcase the product and its characteristics in order to sell something."

I admit we are an endangered species, but Jerry is not quite alone in believing the product still matters -- even, as Mr. Toscani maintains, when "the proliferation of technology puts all companies in a position to launch products that are more or less the same."

Benetton is supposed to be in the fashion business, and technology won't help the company create clothes that women find attractive and contemporary -- or create ads that portray the merchandise in the most flattering manner.

But Benetton's position, as stated so directly by Mr. Toscani, is that all clothing is the same, so let's switch the subject to depicting the company as deeply sympathetic to all of the problems inflicting humanity. But as Bob Garfield put it in commenting on Benetton's capital punishment ads: "There is no brand -- not a single one -- that has the right to increase its sales on the backs of misery, on the fates of condemned men and women, much less their slaughtered victims."

Mr. Toscani said in his letter that to make sure a brand works "it has to convey a meaning, create an identity, capitalize an image, transmit values and bring them closer to mass consumers in a way that is simple and direct." He added this technique has worked well for Benetton everywhere but in the U.S., "where people like Jerry Della Femina evidently still have their now-elderly followers."

What worries me is too many U.S. creative people follow Mr. Toscani's bizarre ideas about advertising. They haven't yet talked their clients into ignoring the product altogether, but they've often progressed to the point where the product is not much more than a prop.

I stubbornly cling to the belief that a product's identity and values come from the product itself (Levi Strauss & Co. is going back to this ancient notion), not from stupid jokes and sight gags, and certainly not from unwanted and intrusive sermons.

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