The Benetton advertising campaigns: Intentions, receptions and the legitimacy of raising global issues in advertising

Term Paper, 2003

12 Pages, Grade: B-68




1. Introduction

2. Corporate strategy

3. Art and strategy: Toscani and his advertising campaigns for Benetton
3.1 Benetton’s (controversy) advertising history: Selections
3.1.1 Children with tongues
3.1.2 Newborn baby
3.1.3 Dying aids victim
3.1.4 Death row

4. Diverse receptions (in various cultural areas)
4.1 Resistance

5. Loss of profits

6. Conclusion

7. References

1. Introduction

Advertising has become the single largest source of visual imagery in our society today. No matter where we look, we see advertisements trying to sell us things. We see images of youthful, beautiful people enticing us to spend our money on products we think we need, hoping that by purchasing the product we too may reap the benefits of owning it. At the beginning of the 1990s however, the Italian clothing company Benetton changed the face of advertising forever. Instead of showing the company’s products in its advertisements, they have chosen to show images related to important world issues in a claimed attempt to raise awareness ( art/art122w_jlh18/student/knepper/Intro.htm). Between 1990 and 1994, and then again in 2000, Benetton attracted attention because of its especially provocative advertising campaigns. Diverse pictures of these campaigns showed situations of adversity, distress, suffering and death. Oliviero Toscani, the creator of the advertisements asserts that it is not his function to increase sales of Benetton products. Toscani claims he uses advertising to raise awareness concerning the issues addressed and his intention is “to promote peace, tolerance, multiculturalism and to challenge stereotypes” ( However, despite claims by Luciano Benetton and Toscani that profit was never a motive and raising social conscience was their single goal, Benetton advertisements have been widely criticised and banned worldwide ( student/knepper/Benetton.htm). This might have resulted anyhow, not only from their approach of attempting to raise awareness of real problems, but from the means with which they did it. Everything that diverges from well known, generally accepted norms appears provocative for the recipient who is used to certain standards. Nevertheless, the different interpretation of its advertising images in diverse cultures caused resistance and problems for the Benetton company. Contrary to other international operating conglomerates that use the same advertising internationally but modify it in consideration of the cultural context, Benetton advertisements are not tailored regionally. The company uses the same images and campaigns worldwide (, and does not consider cultural and moral conceptual differences. It is possible that this parallels the company’s concept of promoting unity and closeness between different cultures and condemning racism, as seen in various early Toscani advertising campaigns for Benetton.

Not only does the use of certain images provoke resistance, but the use of these images in advertising. “People in advertising are clearly more sensitive than, for example, in cabaret. The commercial interest of advertising arouses distrust relatively fast” ( Benetton tried to exculpate itself from the allegations by saying the controversial images had already been published in various magazines without any protests.

In the following text, a few of Toscani’s images are described. The choice is arbitrary. Nevertheless, it allows inspection of Benetton’s campaigns. By means of the images, the text establishes a relationship with various interpretations in different cultural spheres. Culture is an infinitely complex term and it might be impossible to sum up different culturally-based characteristics of the way people in different countries have interpreted the advertisements. The innumerable cultural differences determine that each of Benetton’s advertising images faces individualised receptions and associated resistance. Nevertheless, section 4 shows some similarities whereas section 5, besides looking for reasons why the campaigns caused a loss of profits for Benetton, reveals wheater advertising is always profit-motivated or if it can also be used to realize the goal’s Benetton and Toscani claimed to have.

2. Corporate strategy

Benetton aims for an absolute presence of the brand in public. The choice of place depends exclusively on centrality. Salvemini (2002:15) states: “This marketing policy is the foundation for the development of the brand and the rising name recognition.” Under the precondition that the name was already widely recognized, Toscani developed advertising campaigns that refrained from visualizing Benetton goods and commodities. “The company was, autonomously from Toscani’s creative contribution, largely known” (Salvemini 2002, p. 16). Toscani’s campaigns aimed to activate the curiosity of potential customers in what the Benetton clothes not displayed in the advertisements would look like. With his controversial campaigns and the associated publicity, Toscani made Benetton one of the most recognized brands in the world. After his layoff in 2000, attention to Benetton has slipped. The 2003 BusinessWeek ’s ‘Top 100 brands scoreboard’ does not even list the company (

3. Art and strategy: Toscani and his advertising campaigns for Benetton

W. Leiss (1990:309) states: “the role of advertising in modern industrial societies is to verbalize and to image the possible meaning of things, and to facilitate the exchanges of meanings occurring in social interactions.” Contrary to this scheme, Toscani used images for his campaigns that had nothing to do with Benetton’s products. Toscani circumvented one of the conventions of advertising when he created a change in style. The previous approach of advertising aimed to create identifications between consumer and commodity, whereas Toscani developed a pattern in which the customer does not identify with the concrete object but with an abstract idea. The absence of the products in most of the company’s advertisements parallels this pattern.

Toscani’s photographs appear as shocking because the displayed person(s) or situations are neither beautified nor embellished. Furthermore, the images in Benetton advertisements usually appear over a white background, what suggests an appearance that could be interpreted as clinical and stark.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Benetton advertising campaigns: Intentions, receptions and the legitimacy of raising global issues in advertising
University of Canterbury  (Department of Mass Communication and Journalism)
COMS 406 Advertising and Society
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
356 KB
Benetton, Intentions, COMS, Advertising, Society
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2003, The Benetton advertising campaigns: Intentions, receptions and the legitimacy of raising global issues in advertising, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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