Oliviero Toscani is shocking Europe again. And yes we admit it: the Italian clothing ad, above, for which Toscani is responsible, is way over the line — and would be whether it were a man groping a woman, or a woman, a man.
But can we admit one more thing? We fucking love this ad! We are crazy for it, however much we know it’s more appropriate for Nightcharm than for a night stroll through Rome. But really, how refreshing! A real couple, one man at least 15 years older than the other with whitening hair, both with lovable doggy faces. We believe this couple. They’re not two perfect Abercrombie & Fitch boys sleeping chastely on each other’s tummies. These men have the slightly worn look of knock-around guys who know what it is to be ridden hard and put away wet.
Coming on the heels of the Italian public’s deliberations on legalizing gay marriage, the Ra-Re ads have a particularly topical sting — the Oliviero Toscani signature. The notorious photographer was the brains behind the often head-swiveling “Colors of Benetton” ads (right) that turned subjects as somber as AIDS, African massacres, and Death Row inmates into high-concept fashion ads. The purpose of the edgy Benetton ads was not so much to sell clothes as to brand the yuppie sweater company as radical and newsworthy.
Perhaps the Benetton ad we remember most, the one that still makes us wince, was a poster of Ronald Reagan that was wheat-pasted across the building sites of Manhattan. At the time, the ex-President was far gone into Alzheimer’s. Still, the ad showed an extreme closeup of the woefully deteriorated, dull-eyed Reagan with — a macabre Photoshop touch — the KS lesions of an AIDS sufferer.
The cruelty of the concept was in no way lightened by Reagan’s own criminal silence on “the disease of homosexuals and drug addicts” that, with no federal assistance whatsoever, had roiled the nation during his administration. But then that was the point of the poster. Toscani had made even a hardened ACT-UP activist like ourselves wince, re-experiencing the sudden horror of AIDS all over again, in the form of an unexpected celebrity.
Today, Toscani gabbles with the somewhat more benign battle for the legal legitimacy of gay unions.
Barbara McMahon reports from Rome, the U.K. Observer:
Half-naked models are commonplace on Italy’s advertising hoardings but a kiss between two fully dressed men has caused a furore on the streets of its capital.
Photographer Oliviero Toscani has ignited a furious debate over homosexuality with his latest adverts featuring two men kissing and groping on a sofa. The billboards have triggered outrage at a time when the rights of homosexual couples are being hotly debated in Catholic Italy.
In one poster for the men’s clothing line Ra-Re, one of the models is clutching another’s crotch. Another shows the same model lying across the sofa and pulling his boyfriend on top of him for a kiss.
‘These posters are vulgar and a bad example for our children,’ said a spokesman for the parents association MOIGE, which wants the adverts banned. ‘It’s not a matter of sexual orientation. They would be crass even if they featured a man and a woman.’ Complaints have flooded in to the offices of Rome city council and an organization called The Citizens Defense Movement has joined the chorus of criticism. ‘Obviously we respect homosexuality but it can be difficult to explain to young children,’ a spokesman said.
Toscani [at left], who was behind the controversial Benetton clothing company adverts and whose career has been built on shock tactics, was typically unrepentant. The 63-year-old photographer admitted he had taken advantage of the current debate in Italy about the legal and civil rights of gay couples.
‘There’s a big discussion going on about homosexuality in Italy so I thought it was the right time to do something like this,” he told The Observer. “I don’t think it’s vulgar. It’s just two men having fun together. These parents who are complaining — their kids already know about this stuff. The Vatican is not too happy with me either but the church is an anachronism in the world today. I don’t think it has any influence on young people.’
During his 18-year collaboration with Benetton, Toscani was accused of cynicism in using controversial images for commercial ends. They included a dying AIDS activist, handicapped children, a man slain by the Mafia, and a nun kissing a priest. In 2000 he left the company after a campaign featuring death row inmates sparked a series of law suits.
Demands for the adverts to be withdrawn have had little success. A spokesman for Rome city council said it was not their job to decide what was morally acceptable in advertising.