Week 2: Graphic Agitation

“In 1989, the clothing giant ‘Benetton’ launched ‘United Colors of Benetton’ as the label for a single, global brand – and, henceforth, clothing disappeared from their advertising.” (McQuiston, 2004)

Oliviero Toscani, an Italian photographer and creative director, was the man responsible for Benetton’s shocking campaigns throughout the 90s decade, exposing truths and inciting public awareness and discussion with images that continually went ‘one step too far’.

5fea79414b1359feeac3d830ed94fff12602His controversial photographs often portrayed themes and scenes of affection, such as a woman breastfeeding a baby or two people kissing.
“There isn’t such a thing as a shocking picture; there is a shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren’t there. (…) Pictures put you in front of a reality that most of the times you don’t want to see, don’t want to know about, don’t want to get involved.” (Toscani, 2010)

A picture of a woman breastfeeding a baby may seem ordinary and meaningless. However, by making a contrast between the mother’s and the baby’s skin colour, Toscani is subtly introducing a message that, to many, became distressing.  “The breastfeeding picture was seen as a reference to slavery, with black women as wet nurses, and also to black women’s position as the object of white men’s desire.” (Seppänen, 2000)

The same happens with the second image. Here, it is the clothing the two protagonists wear that transforms its context. If a kiss is seen as something innocent and beautiful, then here it becomes sinful and perverted, “a particularly serious offense to Catholics.” (The New York Times, 1991)

Although many have complained about Benetton’s (and particularly Toscani’s) outrageous campaigns, some have praised it for standing up for these important causes. Personally, I feel it is imperative to raise awareness about social issues and prejudices. Shock advertising is only one of the many methods to do this, but it is a good one. If done differently, these images would certainly go unnoticed. Oliviero Toscani knew that only through shock could he get the message across.


  • McQuiston, L. (2004). Graphic agitation 2. 1st ed. London: Phaidon Press.
  • Seppänen, J. (2000). Young People, Researchers and Benetton. University of Tampere.
  • The New York Times, (1991). Benetton Ad’s Opponents Fail. [online] Available at: http://tinyurl.com/h5vja9s [Accessed 18 Jan. 2017].
  • Toscani, O. (2010). ‘There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality’.

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