United Colors of Controversy

Article excerpt

An international quarterly emphasizes the offbeat, the eccentric and the obscure.

The images can be stark or bizarre, but they almost always are provocative: a man out for a walk with a pig on a leash; a toilet seat encrusted with jewels; a newborn covered with amniotic fluid. This is just a sampling of some of the 16 covers that have decorated Colors magazine, an international quarterly that has managed in its five years of existence to generate enough controversy to attract -- and repel -- thousands of readers.

The brainchild of maverick fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani and entrepreneur Luciano Benetton, head of the multinational clothing company that bears his name, Colors was conceived as a companion to the Benetton catalogue. The catalogue, with its famous legend, United Colors of Benetton, already had created considerable controversy by featuring brash and often-disturbing images -- a group of AIDS victims, for example -- that had no apparent relationship to the company's products.

But in a world bombarded by advertising, the Benetton campaign succeeded in commanding attention. Although the magazine initially was distributed with the catalogue, Toscani decided it would do better on its own. While Benetton continues to subsidize what Colors Editor in Chief Alex Marashian calls a modest budget, the company exerts no editorial control over the magazine's content. "Occasionally we poke fun at them -- if we're writing about multinationals we don't forget about our sponsor," Marashian tells Insight.

To convey its messages, Colors emphasizes the offbeat, the eccentric and the obscure. In an effort to show "the reality of war," for instance, the magazine ran a story about the difficulties women in besieged Sarajevo experienced in obtaining tampons. Another story examined the resources necessary to create an ordinary hamburger: enough water for 17 showers, enough grain to make a kilo of bread and enough fossil fuel to drive a small car.

Even the layout is unusual: Unlike most magazines, the editorial and the masthead are located near the back. Words, pictures and graphics enjoy equal weight. One issue, in fact, consisted of nothing but pictures. Readers offended by the magazine's audacious images have written scathing letters to the editor declaring that they will never buy a Benetton sweater again. "It's all right with us," says Marashian. "We don't sell any sweaters."

No issue has offended more readers than the one devoted to AIDS. To find out why, a reader would only have to glance at the editorial written in the form of a fictitious obituary. "When former US. President Ronald Reagan died from AIDS complications in February of last year," it began, "the world lost a courageous leader. Reagan is best remembered for his quick and decisive response to the AIDS epidemic early in his presidency In June of 1981, against the counsel of his closest advisers, the president interrupted national television programming to explain the findings of his emergency health task force and urge the use of condoms." Says Marashian, "We got an enormous amount of flak from the right-wing press in the US. …