“Behind” the Colors of Benetton: the reasons of Benetton’s controversial success

Benetton’s controversial approach to advertising is commonly referred to as “shockvertising” and has provoked several scandals over the years, in particular when he touched on the taboo-topic of AIDS. The brand ignored the constant critics and carried on applying the same strategies. Yet profits kept on rising and customers’ loyalty became stronger and stronger. They clearly knew what they were doing. The fashion industry is a for-profit industry and despite any good intention a brand cannot afford to give something for nothing. There must have been an ulterior motive for their illusory philanthropic behaviour.


When award winning Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani joined the Benetton Group in 1983, his strategies to reposition the brand in the international market were fairly banal. The changes were strictly related to colours, background and characters, still crucial for the success (or failure) of a campaign but not representative of a completely new identity. Years later, the real revolution took place. Oliviero Toscani finally created this “new language” that was meant to make the brand recognisable on an international level breaking the Italian market boundaries. This mainly visual language should have spread the same awareness and messages to everyone through promotional campaigns that touched delicate subjects such as war, pollution, racism and AIDS.

In 1991, after a few promotional campaigns to raise awareness about this disease, Oliviero Toscani made a hit with Thérèse Frares’ which is an  awarded picture of an HIV victim David Kirby. The picture represents this skeletal young man surrounded by his family in his last few moments on this earth. It was originally shot in black and white two years before and became notorious thanks to the clever use Toscani made of it. First of all, he decided that a coloured picture would have had a stronger impact on the viewer. The shades he used are soft and slightly faded and the final result gives the idea of looking at a painting rather that a real-life picture. It is not clear whether it was done on purpose or by coincidence, but this choice subliminally bestowed in the picture a holy aura that tends to relieve the campaign from its highly arguable content. Subliminal messages are perceived by our subconscious and with this sort of association with faith and religion, Toscani probably tried to reach people’s inner feelings. Besides, it is not even the only allusion to religion. That desperate final hug of David and his father has been frequently compared to the famous sculpture “La Pietà” by Michelangelo Buonarroti, representing a dying Jesus laying on the lap of the Virgin Mary after the crucifixion. Probably, the similarities pointed out by the audience were strictly related to the single visual aspect, but digging deeper another interesting and far more controversial comparison can be made. Just like Jesus, – unjustly crucified because of people’s cruelty and ignorance, a victim of AIDS is subjected to the same treatment. At that time, clericals and devotees used to refer  to the disease as a “divine punishment” and a “consequence of moral decadence”, a belief that was largely spread within the society. Toscani’s decision to show such a theme on giant billboards on the streets where anyone could see them, challenged this unfavourable party and hardly raised any awareness about it. The religious message became an additional pretext to cry scandal and blasphemy rather than cause people compassion and interest.


This campaign was one of the first to embody the shift from photo-shoot pictures to real ones. For this reason, the main accusation Benetton was subject of was no more the content or picture of the campaign but the legitimisation of its use. However, if we focalise attention on David Kirby’s campaign we find out that Kirby’s parents agreed to let Benetton use the picture, claiming that “it was time that people saw the truth about AIDS” and the Company could have helped in that effort. This actually legitimises the use of the picture. But once again Toscani was endlessly blamed for exploiting sufferance to make profit. At this point, the reasonable suspect is that the problem was not the picture but the theme, again . That single shot of truth showed nothing more than what people already knew or could find reading a newspaper or watching TV. Toscani always defined the aim of his campaigns as the intent of unifying people against problems that affect our society as a whole, but once more they did not want to be associated with it. This is not an irrelevant point for a brand whose purpose is to attract customers and make them purchase their products and services. Considering the collaboration between Oliviero Toscani and Benetton and its quite peaceful duration of nearly 20 years without relevant changes, it is undeniable that the company must have gained from it. As a matter of fact, the company’s intentions look much less disinterested just analysing their moves from another prospective.

We have already pointed out that the picture does not show anything new about the disease and for this reason should not raise such a shocked reaction from the viewers. At the same time, it is in contrast with Benetton’s leitmotiv of “raising awareness” since it just represents a well-coloured and tragic copy of what people could find in the newspaper every day. If we go back to the early adverts that Oliviero Toscani created for Benetton, we can identify the same attempt to cover up a substantially banal advert with a façade of controversy and criticism. In line with those adverts that represented an unreal racial harmony where people from all over the world hugged each other, David Kirby’s picture shows the stereotype of hopeless and desperate victims of the disease. Nothing about how to prevent and fight it. And if it doesn’t raise compassion nor awareness, what are they really trying to achieve? Obviously profits.


The explanation is mainly embodied by the only other element in the campaign apart from the picture: the logo. The American designer Raymond Loewy gives the idea that the presence of the logo in every advert reminds us of the real purpose behind it (making profits) and nullifies any type of political or social engagement. Benetton’s logo does not stand out for its originality but for its simplicity instead. With a sans serif font (Gill Sans) and the recognisable green rectangle, whether big or small it can be placed on every picture and it immediately leads back to the brand. As far as David Kirby’s picture is concerned, the logo represents a sort of metaphorical handhold for the viewer. After a first reaction to the emotionality of the picture, the logo brings the customer back to rationality and it forces him to decide whether to accept Benetton’s compromise or not: pretext of social commitment in order to sell goods. The real question is why customers should consciously accept to be tricked.

What Benetton claimed to fight for was social change and responsibility. The truth is that they just presented what we all already knew through an innovative medium: advertising. It goes without saying that Toscani bravely broke conventional advertising techniques, putting at stake the company’s profits and reputation. He gave birth to a new visual and perceptual language that intended to use a commonly profitable medium for not-for-profit purposes. However, the credibility given by the risks the company ran for justice’s sake is not supported by facts and figures. David Kirby’s advert made the company’s profits rise by 24% ($ 132 million worldwide) in spite of all the criticism and it is really hard to believe that it was completely unexpected. The brutal truth is that Benetton was just trying to attract the attention of a wider audience, subtly promising the relief of fighting for social issues through the purchase of their products.

It has been proved that visual messages are more likely to engage the viewer than written ones. Is it just a coincidence that Benetton adverts hardly contain any words? Images make a stronger impression on our minds and the lack of any sort of text or statement leaves the viewer complete freedom to choose what to make of it. By the time David Kirby’s advert was released, the percentage of people favourable to these sort of promotional methods was obviously high according to the numbers. This clearly means that whether passively or not, the majority of customers used its “freedom” to protect their interests and shake off the guilt of consumerism by a fake façade of social engagement.


However, nothing lasts forever. When the advert came out in 1991, Toscani’s “shockverts” touched themes at the edge of social debate and it was worth spending money to be part of it. Supporting such issues was a new-born trend and Benetton was clever in selling clothes in the shape of ideals. Over the years, people got way too aware of these topics, and rather than ask “Why are they doing it?” they argue “Why are they still doing it?”. Benetton’s recent campaigns are trying to alternate the evergreen “shockverts” with the old colorful harmony but the notoriety of being a contrarian prevents the company from stepping back without generating an even bigger scandal. After all, we can say that campaigns like the AIDS one worked very well and were obviously quite effective thanks to Benetton’s sharp marketing strategy. However, they have been unable to put it into perspective and their “trick” confined them into a vicious circle hard to get out of.

Asia Gentili


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