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Oliviero Toscani & Benetton

Liz Wells provides a case study, Benetton, Toscani and the Limits of Advertising, to draw out strategies for the analysis of commercial photography.  She discusses Toscani’s work with Benetton from 1984 onwards and how it crossed into the realms of the art world by trying to reach beyond the usual purpose of eye-catching spectacle.

The strategies for analysis include:

  • Commercial impact – the success of the advertising campaigns and imagery representative of harmony (‘the united colours of Benetton’)  in helping Benetton become a global brand.
  • Process of production – this refers to Benetton’s own operations and activities in making its products and contrasts them with the message of harmony presented in its adverts; summarised as cheap labour and restricting competition through engagement in trade tariffs, limiting availability of cheap materials for competitors.
  • The narrative of the images: in this case, the use of shock advertising to spark controversy and attention in the popular press, through ‘pseudo-documentary’ images. The Telegraph online shows some of these images in controversial Benetton ads in pictures. As does the Daily Mail, showing Benetton’s digitally manipulated images of world leaders apparently kissing (part of the ‘unhate’ advertising campaign).

Toscani himself was interviewed by CNN and asked about his controversial work, responding:

There are people who, when they look at a picture, they get angry at it. But they should get angry at themselves for not having the courage to look into the problem, … There isn’t such a thing as a shocking picture, there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren’t there.

Advert featuring man dying of AIDS

Toscani’s work has a different aesthetic to much advertising, which is often focused on portraying desirable lifestyles that can supposedly be attained through obtaining the advertised commodity. His work does not portray desirable states (for example dying of AIDS) but grabs attention through causing shock and courting controversy.  Benetton’s products do not even feature in the adverts – just their name. We remember the brand name of Benetton and it has generated great wealth for its founders; Giuliana Benetton had a net worth of $2.8 billion (March 2015 Forbes.com).

Any inconsistency between the advertising message and the process of production is perhaps also part of broader issue relevant to Western society has a whole – many consumers are also culpable by buying lower priced products regardless of the process of production, forcing businesses to move production to low-cost locations, or go out of business.


CNN (2010) [online]. Oliviero Toscani:There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality’. Available from: http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/08/13/oliviero.toscani/index.html [accessed 3.12.15]

The Daily Mail (2011) [online]. Benetton withdraws ad campaign image of Pope kissing Egyptian imam after Vatican complains it is disrespectful. Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2062423/Benetton-Unhate-advert-Pope-kissing-imam-withdrawn-Vatican-calls-disrespectful.html [accessed 3.12.15]

Iconic Photos [blog]. ‘United Colors of Benetton’. Available from: https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/tag/united-colors-of-benetton/ [accessed 3.12.15]

The Telegraph (2011) [online]. Controversial Benetton ads in pictures. Available from: http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/galleries/TMG8895895/Controversial-Benetton-ads-in-pictures.html [accessed 3.12.15]

Wells L (2015). Photography: A Critical Introduction (Fifth Edition). London, Routledge.

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