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  • Benetton Backlash: Does controversy sell sweaters?
  • Kimberly Sugden (bio)

A Progressive Company

Creative thinking was nothing new for Benetton, a company that pioneered the use of a manufacturing process known as “dyeing in the piece,” a method that colored the garments after they had been made as opposed to dying raw materials pre-production. This allowed the company to gain a just-in-time distribution advantage over its competitors, as colors could be ordered on the basis of consumer demand for each store location. This innovative process catapulted Benetton to international growth in just 20 years, allowing the company to open retail locations in the heart of the world’s largest cities.

Benetton’s early advertising from 1966–1983 largely followed traditional aesthetics. Many ads featured young men and women wearing Benetton clothes in desirable, interesting locations. It can be said that despite their realist aesthetic, these ads began to also display a dualism in meaning, showcasing the battle for self-expression versus social conformity. On the one hand, the men and women dressed and looked individualistic; on the other, they were all wearing Benetton garments of a similar style (Figure 1). As author Lorella Pagnucco Salvemini comments, “it makes possible the formulation of the contradictory principles ‘I am I’, and also ‘I am the same as the others’, given that ‘my clothes are simultaneously the same as and different from those of my friends.’”i An early form of Benetton’s now famous paradoxical style of advertising was beginning to take center stage.

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Figure 1.

Benetton ad pre-Toscani

The Era of Oliviero Toscani

In 1983 Luciano Benetton was championing an extensive international growth phase for his company and subsequently wanted to launch an advertising campaign that would rejuvenate Benetton’s image to reflect its global outreach and colorful products. It was at this time that the edgy photographer Oliviero Toscani was introduced to Benetton. His first ad ran in the spring-summer of 1984. Toscani replaced the pastoral backdrops that had illustrated past Benetton campaigns with a stark white background. This plain prism of a backdrop served to intensify the colorful role Benetton’s clothes and models would play in capturing the attention of consumers (Figure 2). Instead of the backdrop acting as a main character in the narrative of the ad, models assumed the central role in Toscani’s messaging.

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Figure 2.

spring-summer 1984—Bright Colors

In a series of ads that ran 1985–1986, Toscani projected dichotomous geographic locations onto the identities of featured model pairs through national flag imagery and stereotypical accessories. One such ad displays children dressed up to represent the United States and the Soviet Union—the American child innocently goes to give a kiss to a recoiling Soviet boy (Figure 3). Benetton placed this image on all the outdoor billboard space along Paris’ Champs Elysees during October 1985 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting the French capital. According to Ad Age, “the Champs Elysees was the site of Mr. Gorbachev’s procession, and the boards caused a sensation and were commented on by French newspapers and TV.”ii In these ads, the former “All the colours of the world” tagline was replaced by the now famous slogan “United colors of Benetton.”

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Figure 3.

spring-summer 1985 —US and Soviet Relations

Another image from that campaign showcases two young men, dressed in Arabic and Hasidic accessories, but both wearing Benetton garments (Figure 4). An important addition to this image is a small globe, clasped by both of their hands—a symbol of the unification of humankind regardless of religion, race, beliefs, or background. Lorella notes that despite the models differing origins and symbolism, “in this way the clothing designed by Benetton rose to the role of an ambassador of peace between people.” As Toscani himself also explained, “the sweater was becoming like the glue between differences of race, language and religion.”iii But a strategic dualism was also emerging between Benetton’s humanitarian efforts for racial tolerance and their corporate goals of conquering more global markets and profit.

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