Benetton, The family the business and the brand

 
 
 

Benetton, The family the business and the brand

The Emperor's New Clothes Going further, Ponzano, the Veneto, 1992

For the new spring and summer campaign, Toscani had selected seven images conforming to a single theme: 'reality'.

The images included a Mafia killing in Palermo, a flood in Bangladesh, a boat full of refugees from Albania, a burning car in Sicily, a truck overrun by refugees in Liberia, and a Liberian soldier with a kalashnikov, holding a human thigh bone behind his back. The single green and white rectangular logo on each bore the legend 'United Colors of Benetton'. This time, however, none of these images had been taken by Toscani. The supreme egotist, who had first taken all the pictures and then taken all the clothes out of the pictures, had now stopped taking the pictures altogether.

The reaction to these images, used in the context of clothes retailing, was immediate; most of them were banned to various degrees in various countries. Patrick Robert's picture of the Liberian soldier holding the human thigh bone was banned from publication by court injunction in France and by voluntary prohibition in Britain and Japan. Robert, a photographer for the prestigious Sygma agency, who had also taken the picture of the truck overrun by Liberian refugees, commented: 'The absence of an explanatory caption on my photographs does not bother me . . . For me, the objective of the campaign is reached . . . to draw the public's attention to these victims.' Likewise, Gian Luigi Bellini's picture of a burning car in Sicily was deemed by the Irish Advertising Board to be too realistic for a country divided by violent conflict, and was rejected by a French magazine. Franco Zecchi's picture of a Mafia killing in Palermo met with resentment in Italy and was rejected by various publications. The picture of a ship full of Albanian refugees, taken by an unknown photographer, was rejected by magazines in France and Denmark.

But it was the seventh image, however, that unleashed a reaction so strong that, for the first time, the controversy generated by a Benetton advertisement was brought home into the shops on a meaningful scale.

Oxford Circus, London, England, 1992

The art of folding and refolding woollen jumpers, sweatshirts and shirts all day long, perfectly, over and over again, without losing your self-control, was more easily acquired by some than by others, as the manageress of the Hampstead shop and others had discovered. Each garment had to be retrieved from where the customer had discarded it, refolded in exactly the prescribed way and replaced in exactly the same place on the shelves. Two tables stood in the middle of the shop in Oxford Circus expressly for this purpose; they were fully occupied all day, every day. When a discarded garment had to be replaced in a hurry and the two tables were busy, the process was done on the spot instead, in a manner known as 'air folding', which was only for the most advanced and self-controlled shop assistant.

Saturday was the busiest day of the week in this, the busiest of the London shops. This was why die group of gay rights activists from Act-Up, the international AIDS pressure group, had chosen precisely this time to demonstrate against Benetton on the pavement outside the shop. Their plan, however, was not just to target the attention of the passing crowds but also the United Colors of Benetton shop itself and its customers.

After finishing on the pavement, the demonstrators paused for a moment to regroup. Then, in a body, they rushed the entrance and fanned out inside the shop. Here, amid shouts of abuse and glee, muscular, tattooed arms sporting studded leather wrist bands pulled immaculately folded, brightly coloured jumpers by the score from the shelves and flung them high into the air. As the customers and shop assistants scattered, a mountain of disorderly clothes landed on the floor of the shop. All these clothes would have to be picked up, refolded and replaced in the right position. The demonstrators then left as quickly as they had come.

This visitation was just one effect of the seventh image in the series that Toscani had selected on the theme of 'reality' for the new Benetton spring and summer campaign. The image, a picture originally published in Life magazine and taken by Therese Frare, was that of David Kirby, an American AIDS sufferer, with his family in the moments after his death. Frare, who would win the World Photo Award with this picture, had taken it with the family's consent and their consent had also been given for Benetton to use the image as part of the 'reality' campaign. The monochrome image had been coloured through an electronic process which had heightened the intensity of the composition and given the features of the recently deceased victim a Christ-like aura. Now, however, this carefully devised 'reality' was going out of control. For the first time, the handling of the brand was threatening to damage the image and even the sales of the company. The Royal College of Art, Kensington, London, 1992

A British tabloid newspaper had shown the image in a scathing issue before its official presentation as part of the campaign. The resulting uproar among charities, politicians and interest groups had quickly been picked up and promulgated by the media around the world. Although many other newspapers also included favourable comment from the public, unfavourable comment, including from Benetton store owners and staff, put the business on the defensive in a way that was harder to shake off than had been the case with the 'little devils' or baby Giusy.

This was why Luciano and Toscani were at the Royal College, to explain and defend the use of the David Kirby picture. 'It is reality,' Luciano told the assembled press corps. 'Our company principally has the function of making people think. You can be more useful than selling a product,' he went on, clearly believing this, although it was equally clear that this belief was not shared by the audience. 'To improve the image of the company,' he said, 'we thought we could do something further. We wanted to have a spirit of sensitivity and care for others, as well as our own product.'

Luciano was speaking, as usual, through an interpreter; this gave him more time to think, but sometimes created an unfavourable impression in the minds of hostile journalists. One questioner, with the current turnover of the business in mind, asked him the US$1.6 billion question: 'Would you abandon the campaign if it ceased to sell jumpers?'

'It's an academic question,' Luciano replied calmly, 'but certainly I would think about it.'

Toscani, for his part, was defiant but careful not to antagonise the questioners, possibly because he sensed that he had lost them from the beginning. 'Why does reality make such a big controversy?' he said wearily. 'Traditional advertising pictures are a bunch of lies. What we show is the truth. If people want to censor it, I am sorry.' He went on, 'We are all in a business, and we all have to survive, we are not a charity.'

'No,' he and Luciano both replied, 'we have no plans to donate money from our profits to AIDS charities.'

This remark, as it was quoted, and the mass-market newspaper coverage in question, belied the fact - unreported - that Benetton was already engaged in a series of initiatives with AIDS groups. In the United States, the company produced a guide to safe sex in conjunction with Gay Men's Health Crisis. Benetton was also starting to advertise in gay magazines, which were generally shunned by the big corporations. In Brazil, the safe sex guide was published in association with the Grupo de Apoio a Pronen,cao a AIDS, and run in the three biggest daily newspapers. In South Africa, Benetton funded the display of posters showing condoms in front of five hospitals in Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria, in conjunction with the Medical Research Council. In Germany, Benetton participated in a massive fund raiser for AIDS awareness in the country's hundred largest discotheques. The company also donated copies of its posters by request to the International Conference on AIDS in Amsterdam.

In France, meanwhile, the Bureau de Verification de la Publicite took the unprecedented step before the advertisement was printed of threatening to exclude any publication that dared carry it, or carried the image of the Liberian soldier clutching the human thigh bone. One French magazine, Ma~c, for young people, ignored this threat. The editor commented:

Our readers, those between fifteen and thirty years old, are directly affected by this topic. This campaign is one way of approaching the AIDS problem whilst avoiding the sociomedical aspect. Our readers' letters have shown that we were not wrong.

Elsewhere in Europe, in Switzerland, Schweizer Illustnerte also ran the image, saying that it did not offend mass sensibility, but 'wounded only one thing: the rules of the game according to which the message must be dull, even stale'. New York City, United States of America, 1992

Here in the country where it had been taken, Vogue magazine decided to run the AIDS picture. The family of David Kirby himself, meanwhile, reiterated their support for the use of the picture at a press conference, stating that this was a means of illustrating the dangers of AIDS and continuing the struggle against the disease.

'It's what he would have wanted,' said Kirby's father. 'We don't feel used. Benetton is not exploiting our grief to sell sweaters. Rather, it is we who are using Benetton. David is speaking louder now that he is dead than when he was alive.'

Father Tom Cadder was a close friend of the Kirbys. Commenting on the Christ-like aura that some had attributed to the technical manipulation of the original picture, he said: 'Who has really seen a picture of Jesus? I have copies of the original slides and prints, and, untouched, he looks the way many of us picture Jesus.' Barb Cordle was the Columbus, Ohio hospice nurse who had cared for David Kirby for the last three years of his life. She knew how Kirby had been treated before he had come into her care; how he had been hounded in his small home town; how the contents of the ambulance that had taken him to hospital had been burned afterwards; how Kirby had fought back against the disease and fought for greater education about AIDS and its myths. Ms Cordle could eventually no longer contain her feelings about the criticisms of Benetton's use of the image, and wrote: 'The picture in question has done more to soften people's hearts on the AIDS issue than any other I have ever seen. You can't look at that picture and hate a person with AIDS. You just can't.'

The New York Times summed up thus:

The company estimates that between five hundred million and one billion people have seen the AIDS image, far more than ever saw it when it first came out in Life magazine. A public that is reading fewer newspapers and believing fewer broad casts, might begin to swallow tiny doses of information between the ads for liquor and lingerie.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, there was an unexpected reaction to another of the 'reality' images in the place where the real event depicted took place. Palermo, Sicily, 1992

They may have liked to kill there, but the 'men of honour' and their offspring did not, apparently, like to see pictures of the consequences. In a bizarre twist, the daughter of Benedetto Grado, the dead Sicilian in the Palermo murder picture, announced she was going to sue Benetton for damages for using the image in its 'reality' campaign. 'How does my father's death enter into publicity for sweaters?' complained Rosalia Grado. 'The picture is pasted up in Palermo for all to see, and-it has offended us.'

Perhaps Ms Grado was being a little disingenuous, otherwise her statement would have fitted perfectly into an Italian adaptation of Through the Looking Glass. The killing in question had in fact taken place nearly ten years earlier during a gangland war in the city between the Grado and the Corleone families. Benedetto Grado, the dead man, was a seventy-eight-year-old market garden supervisor who belonged to the former family and had served time in prison on the grounds of involvement with the Mafia. He was also related to a Mafia boss who had recently disappeared. The civic authorities who tried to resist the grip of the Mafia on the area lived in fear of their lives and frequently ended up in the same position as the man in the picture, only, in their cases, innocent. Yet they went unmourned by the likes of Ms Grado, her mother and her sister-inlaw, who were the three women in the picture shown mourning over the corpse of Mr Grado.

In a further twist, the Magnum photographer who took the picture, Franco Zecchi, was suing the Italian Fascist Party for using it in their election publicity. Meanwhile, it was good for the Catholic Church and other critics of Benetton to know that old-fashioned notions of decency and public morality were still alive and well in Sicily.

Ponzano, the Veneto, 1992

Colors issue number 2 featured as its cover picture the 'reality' image of 4,000 Albanian refugees crammed onto a ship, many of them spilling over the side. Inside, there were striking items on Russian people from all walks of life, with an examination of the phenomenon of fake Western consumer goods and national pride a expressed through the automobile; toys and gadgets made from recycled waste in different parts of the world; dever 'advertisements showing traditional competitors such as Pirelli and Goodyear united in an embrace; and designer chickens. Toscani's latest brainchild was even bigger and better in style and content than its predecessor. This time, the print run was a million copies, again available free ir five bilingual editions in 6,500 Benetton and Benetton-linked shops in a hundred countries. One of these copies had landed on the desk of Aldo Palmeri.

Palmeri had returned after two years at Citibank to his job as chief executive of Benetton Group. 'He was a very clever managing director,' Gilberto would say, 'and our relationship was so good that after he had been gone for some time, we decided to track him down and persuade him to come back.' Palmeri had looked at Colors and its contents: the Albanians, the Russians, the designer chickens. Then he looked at the costs.

Palmeri's return to the business had also enabled Luciano to fulfil the ambition he had been harbouring for some time; indeed, it had been a factor in the return of the chief executive. Luciano had decided to go into politics.

Palmeri's return was not the only reason for Luciano's decision, although many outside observers professed themselves surprised that Luciano had chosen to move into political life. The truth was that there were a number of reasons. Toscani was content merely to rail in a libertarian fashion against social injustice and hypocrisies without which his work would ultimately have had no meaning. Luciano, on the other hand, truly believed he could go further. The recent direction of the image of the brand had given it a greater political dimension than ever. The business was well into turnaround as the analysts had predicted, and safe in the hands of Palmeri. Luciano was also an indefatigable, world-class networker, known from the White House to the Kremlin. There were plenty of precedents for businessmen going into politics around the world. The country was undergoing a free-market revolution, in which greater privatisation was seen by Luciano and many others as the key to a stabler and more prosperous future. He feared that the difficult economic situation in Italy, with its spiralling labour costs, might derail 9 this process and bring back the spectre of political and social unrest. 'I am very busy, but I've always wanted to go into politics,' he was misquoted as saying. This was untrue, but here he was offering his services to the nation.

The secretary of the local Republican Party, for whom Luciano 9 had been accepted as a candidate in the coming election, was understandably thrilled to have the support of one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in the world. 'We are delighted to have him on our side,' he declared. At Benetton headquarters, staff in the company's press office fielded calls from journalists and wore Benetton-manufactured T-shirts featuring a blow-up of Luciano's face with the slogan 'Vote Benetton'.

Across the country, candidates included the former pornographic movie star la Cicciolina, and the neo-fascist former model and granddaughter of the dictator, Alessandra Mussolini. The competition was stiff at national and local level. After a recount and by a narrow margin Luciano Benetton was elected to Parliament as republican senator for Treviso.

Luciano had entered a world of terminal indvidualism, in which politics were seen by the majority merely as a plank to further financial self-interest. Luciano, however, was not entering politics for this reason. As one of the T-shirted press offfice staff of the time said later: 'He really believed he could make a contribution.'

What made no difference to the voters was the latest twist in his personal life. Although only the briefest and most unexpected of reunions had taken place between Luciano and Marina, as a result of this, at the age of thirty-four, she had become pregnant and given birth to their first child, a son whom she named Brando. The issue of whether or not she should realise her wish to have a child had been resolved to her satisfaction, but not to Luciano's. This time he severed close relations with her once and for all.

Toscani's images for the autumn and winter campaign pursued the 'reality' theme, albeit in a less shocking fashion, and provoked less shocked reactions as a result. The images, again taken by photographers around the world, were of an oil-covered sea bird in the Arabian Gulf; an albino Zulu woman, ostracised by the rest of her South African tribe; a grimy Salvadorean child lovingly clutching a dirty white doll; pigs recycling the contents of a rubbish heap in Peru; child labour at work on a building site in Colombia; Russian police arresting a suspect; and an unoccupied electric chair in an American jail.

These were powerful images, yet they were somehow rendered less so, rather than more, by the presence of the United Colors of Benetton logo. If humankind could only bear so much reality, perhaps the effects of this particular manipulation of it were wearing off.

Aldo Palmeri was looking at the costs of advertising and sponsorship which accounted for nearly 4 per cent of the total revenues of the business and amounted to around US$60 million. The Benetton Formula racing team, in spite of Luciano's fanatical opposition to smoking, enjoyed considerable tobacco sponsorship, but also consumed increasing amounts of money. All these and other areas came under the scrutiny of the chief executive.

Ad Books: 

Add new comment

Top