In his modest 55th-floor office overlooking Central Park, Oliviero Toscani, the brain behind Benetton's controversial global branding campaign, and now the creative director at Talk magazine as well, looks annoyed as he flips through the latest issue of Tina Brown's colicky baby. Brown recently called on him to revamp the look of her pet project, which has had sluggish sales since its debut last September, and Toscani was only too happy to comply. He calls Brown his "muse," and says "she's looking for probably the same thing I'm looking for; that kind of thing that's not so obvious, that you're not even sure will work. I think it's great to work with people who've got that kind of courage."
As he leafs through Talk, Toscani shakes his head in disgust, but not at the editorial content or the art direction. He is irked, rather, by the pages he can't touch -- the advertising. Agitated, he points at an Estee Lauder layout that shows a white father and son lounging in a hammock, golden retriever resting loyally nearby. "Why is he blond, why is he not Chinese?" Toscani complains. "What is that? Is that Hitler, a new vision? Everybody's a pure race in advertising."
Although Toscani's initial exploits as the creative arm of Benetton started out mildly enough (his first photos, in 1982, used teddy bears to model the children's line), his work soon turned political. He made multiculturalism a key component of the Benetton brand with the 1984 "All Colors of the World" campaign, which featured the harmonious interaction of young people of different races. In 1990, with the introduction of the "United Colors of Benetton," Toscani began to inject his advertising with the jarring, symbolic images with which the brand has come to be associated: a bloody baby fresh from the womb; a black stallion mounting a white mare; a priest kissing a nun, a white infant suckling a black woman's breast. Toscani also politicized entire clothes catalogs. "Enemies," which accompanied an issue of Newsweek in 1998, featured Benetton-clothed Israelis and Arabs in amicable scenarios. The same year saw the "Sunflowers" catalog, which depicted the mentally-challenged children of the St. Valentin Institute in the Bavarian Alps romping around in Euro-wear.
Toscani's latest effort for Benetton appears in the form of a weighty supplement that comes conspicuously bundled with the first sampling of his work at Talk. The somber 96-page outsert to the magazine's February issue is entitled "We, On Death Row," and features poignant portraits, shot by Toscani himself, and interviews with 27 inmates facing execution. While the outsert appears on the heels of the company's announcement that it will be selling clothes on its new Website, which is listed on the back page, the Benetton connection is comparatively low key here -- the inmates are not wearing Benetton clothes. Nevertheless, "We, On Death Row" has drawn the familiar flak about gratuitous "shockvertising" that Toscani has garnered from critics during his 18-year partnership with the Italian clothier. Advertising Age's Bob Garfield, for example, says of the latest campaign, "There is no escaping that this effort, like all of its pretentious predecessors, is fundamentally brand-image advertising. Not journalism. Not art. Not politics. Not public service. It is promotion -- ambitious, provocative, challenging self-promotion." Garfield goes on to say that "no brand has the right to increase its sales on the backs of . . . condemned men and women, much less their slaughtered victims. "
Online magazine Slate ran a column entitled "United Killers of Benetton," in which writer Timothy Noah chides the work for both trivializing and glamorizing the situations of the inmates. "Its attempt to harness this principled stand to the selling of high-necked mohair sweaters, Peruvian folk ponchos and lycra-lined lace panties does tend to trivialize the issue (in much the same way that its previous campaigns trivialized war, AIDS, discrimination and racism)," Noah notes.
The 57-year-old Toscani has little tolerance for these accusations. Imitating his critics, he raises a finger to his mouth and flutters his lips, producing a baby-like burble. "Tell me what is not exploitative in advertising," he demands. "I think that something is finally exploiting advertising instead of the other way around. Benetton is giving the opportunity to people who have AIDS, Down's Syndrome kids, all minorities, to express themselves. And I tell you, those people are pleased to do that."
While his campaigns have been criticized for using politics to push products, Toscani seems genuinely inspired by the causes that back the Benetton brand. Moreover, he notes that all advertising is political; only the message is different. "When you get Claudia Schiffer standing there selling a product, what does that mean? That just blond girls, tall, beautiful with long legs, can sell a car? That's discrimination. It is a political statement. The only thing is, it's dumb."
With Benetton, Toscani believes he introduced a fresh voice into the world of traditional advertising methods. His successful campaigns also turned a politically-charged attitude into a lucrative marketing tool, but that, to some degree, is beside the point. Consumerism, not activism, drives his copycats, he believes. The latest award-winning campaign for Diesel, for example, has been likened to Benetton's work, but Toscani scoffs at the rival company's intentions, which he finds less honorable than his own. "It's masturbation advertising," he says. "I think it's very superficial and nothing more. They are after selling, nothing else." What about Nike's commercial with the wounded and disfigured athletes? "They're making an effort," he concedes. "That's OK. But I don't like the visual quality. It's too fake, too slick. It's advertising; it still speaks the language."
Toscani says "We, On Death Row" is his favorite work for Benetton. The outsert, he believes, is his simplest yet boldest statement that it is possible to have an alternative message within the advertising world. "They're not slick at all," he insists of his photos. "It can't be more simple than this, and they're strong." Everyone was dramatic and interesting, he says of the death row inmates. "These are people who are on the edge. They are there to be eliminated, so it is touching. It's not for me to say if they are innocent or guilty. If I did this as an editorial, it wouldn't shock. It shocks just because it is in the advertising world."
As for Talk, Toscani says the magazine is about a year away from realizing its final form. The new fonts and graphic elements represent only an inkling of his influence. He plans to step up the rhythm of the magazine and increase the impact of its visual content. "A magazine is a piece of journalism, but the modern magazine is also like a theatrical show. It has to give you visual emotion. And today, with all the possibilities with the visual, it's not easy to get people to be emotional when they see something."
More important, Toscani aims to do for the magazine what he believes he did for the Benetton name -- supply it with an anti-establishment identity. "It won't be just a documentary magazine. It has to create interest. We shouldn't come out as news, but we should create something around the news to make it interesting."
Much as he created something around the clothes; Toscani does not deny that his political branding has made Benetton a global sweater-seller, and he notes that the company is 20 times larger than it was when he signed on. He insists, though, that his redeeming motives distinguish him from the fray. "I'd rather have my brand image pushed through something interesting than through something stupid. I'd rather be recognized for being engaged and concerned and willing to see into problems." He also has no intentions of reining himself in. "You know, I'm not looking for consent," he says. "You look for consent, it means you are weak."