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United Colours

7 June 2020

There is a lot of talk of corporate social responsibility. Benetton was an iconic brand in the 1980s and 1990s Oliviero Toscani was the lead creative director and for decades shocked the world with some of the most controversial, some would say socially progressive ads. They sparked outrage, drew headlines and encouraged debate. His work included an AIDS patient on his deathbed, Mafia vendettas, a black woman breastfeeding a white baby, a black and white horse copulating, a priest and a nun kissing, but the consistency of message promoted racial harmony. Portraits of  people uniting regardless of colour, creed, sexuality or gender. While many of his campaigns were socially provocative, they had impact and people remembered them for their social message, to raise awareness of issues that were rarely aired in public. So how do brands today market their products successfully in a crowded global marketplace? There is no better case study than Benetton, they unashamedly put their values first so it wasn’t just about the clothing it was about what it stood for.

Benetton used billboard sized ads to showcase their campaigns, they weren’t afraid to take risks. The company went on to create the UNHATE foundation - the values of which are to create strong messages promoting human rights with the aim to engage the attention of the public and promote positive actions, encouraging anyone to become a player in the fight against intolerance.

The photograph shown here (photo credit Toscani) suggests an interracial, homosexual family at a time when advertising was almost devoid of such depictions. Most images of lesbian relationships used for advertisement to this day are fetishised and heavily sexually suggestive, a quarter of a century later, this image has lost its impact; in 1991 it was very controvercial. In 1996 Toscani went on to use a series of ‘human hearts’ (later revealed to be pig hearts, to address racism - image can be seen here).

Undeniably, corporate social responsibility can help raise awareness, and encourage social change. There is no denying there are tens of thousands of companies doing their part, large global brands can have far-reaching results that can impact major world issues from hunger and health to racial bigotry and global warming.

Benetton's ads had a great impact, they were ahead of their time. Some would say they just don’t have the impact they once did.   In an article in the New York Times  in February Benetton announced it would sever ties with Toscani,  after comments he made about a 2018 bridge collapse that killed 43 people raised protests. Toscani continues to call on companies to use their immense advertising budgets to draw public attention to urgent social and political issues.

Has Benetton’s creative execution lost relevance for today’s audience?

Just my thoughts, I’d love to know yours.

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