The advertising philosophy of United Colors of Benetton is based on Luciano Benetton’s belief that ‘communication should not be commissioned from outside the company, but conceived from within its heart.’ From that assumption stems the advertising strategy of a brand that has aimed, for over 20 years, to create “value” by capitalizing on an image. A company that emphasizes value and chooses to create value is no longer communicating with the consumer but with the individual. Actual consumption is repositioned within the overall context of life. By entering the universe of values, the brand frees the product from the world of merchandise and manufacturing and makes it a social being of its own. By addressing an individual rather than a customer, the brand can identify its target on the basis not of age or income, but of a shared vision of what is important, starting from a set of common values. Benetton became a global force in just a few years—the United Colors concept spread from encompassing the different races to the ideas of tolerance, peace and respect for diversity. The cycle of difference Benetton’s long journey toward its destiny as a subverter of stereotypes began with its cooperation with Oliviero Toscani and the images of the 1986 campaign. Happy groups of multiracial kids were replaced by “couples” representing an all-new interpretation of difference. In this cycle, the word “different” became a close cousin of “controversial.” Benetton learned that dealing with the issue of difference within the process of advertising is not an easy task. Often, an attempt to bring different individuals together can lead to conflict instead of happiness and euphoria. Many ads from the period were an expression of this process. One represented religious and political conflict (the Palestinian and the Israeli):
Another depicted religious and sexual conflict (a priest kissing a nun), and yet another portrayed moral conflict (the stereotypes of good and evil, symbolized by an angel and the devil.
All of these conflicts were based on taboos, on the impossibility of co-existence, on a difference that separates rather than unites. By acknowledging these differences and prohibitions, the brand appeared more involved. It took sides, rather than presenting a simple “objective” portrayal of the world; it made a commitment to foster the cohabitation of opposites, to break down barriers and ensure dialogue. Benetton had a plan: to integrate opposites, to unite differences under a single flag, the flag of its own logo. In this phase, the “product” gradually disappeared from the advertisements. Traditional advertising messages made the product their obvious focus, so that the campaign would have a measurable commercial impact. Benetton took another path, wagering that once the brand’s identity had been established, the product would become one of its attributes. The company was now taking hold on all the continents. Paradoxically, the growing popularity and availability of tangible Benetton merchandise—the goods people could buy in more than 5,000 stores worldwide—translated into the disappearance of those goods from its ads. Oliviero Toscani (b. 1942 is an Italian photographer, best-known worldwide for designing controversial advertising campaigns for Italian brand Benetton, from 1982 to 2000. Most of these advertising campaigns were actually institutionals for the brand, always composed of rather controversial photography, usually with only the company logo “United Colors of Benetton” as caption.