Lausanne, Switzerland — The guests were taken aback. At a dinner earlier this spring following the opening of an exhibition in a Swiss museum, guests were served bowls of rice and cups of tea by children, instead of the four-course Italian dinner they expected.
Over the table hung a sign that read: ''The unbearable lightness of these few grains of rice and the perfume of this tea symbolize the daily fare of most of the inhabitants of the globe. The children who are serving you this essential meal are affiliated with the As'strame Foundation; the money that might have been used for this dinner will be donated to it.''
The children, who were either diagnosed as HIV positive themselves or had parents with the virus, wore oversized T-shirts with emblems that said: ''Benetton by Toscani.'' It was the latest event staged by the Italian apparel company in conjunction with a photography show of Benetton advertisements held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lausanne, Switzerland.
In the 1980s, Benetton advertisements were eye-catching because they were aesthetically pleasing: Fresh, multiracial faces, often children's, in brightly colored sweaters stared out at the world from huge billboards. Then the ads began to change.
In 1991 the company released a larger-than-life photo of a newborn baby, umbilical cord still attached. Benetton was forced to remove the ads from billboards in Italy, Great Britain, Ireland, and France. The same ad won a prize in Switzerland. Over the next five years the Italian company's ads exploited a variety of issues including racism, violence, AIDS, emigration, and pollution. Each image provoked controversy.
The man behind the powerful ad campaign is Oliviero Toscani. The Italian photographer and Benetton creative director's work for the company was the subject of the Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition, which closed recently.
''I had been thinking about these ads, which really irritated me, for two years,'' said curator Chantal Michetti in an interview. ''What a privilege to be able to decorticate the phenomenon in the form of an exhibition.... I think in advertising there will be a 'Before and After Benetton,' whether we like it or not.''
Consider the 1991 reprint of a photograph by Therese Frare, originally taken for Life magazine. The photo, which Mr. Toscani dubbed the ''Pieta,'' shows Aids activist David Kirby on his deathbed, surrounded by his family. While the photograph is heart-wrenching, what shocked people most was the familiar green and white logo ''United Colors of Benetton'' stamped on it. What was a company that sold sweaters doing putting its name on a photograph of a person dying?
This is precisely the question Toscani loves to answer. ''Actually, I've killed advertising,'' Toscani said in an interview published in a Swiss magazine. Conventional advertising, he says, has always lied to its public: It tries to sell happiness by representing a fantasy world in which everything is beautiful. It exploits emotions in order to make money. The media, says Toscani, have the responsibility for bringing up sociopolitical issues and making people think.
Toscani certainly has a point. But he seems to forget periodically that his patron of the arts, Luciano Benetton, is running a business that generated $1.69 billion in sales in 1994. At the press conference held at the museum's opening, Mr. Benetton said: ''In 1994 our gross revenue increased 12 percent from last year. I told Oliviero Toscani: 'make me the best ads in the world,' and he did.''
Most of the debates provoked by Toscani's work are covered in a small book the museum published in lieu of a catalog for the exhibition. In it, 67 artists, clerics, philosophers, sociologists, museum directors, art critics, and writers expressed their opinions.
A sampling finds Italian author Furio Colombo writing: ''True, Benetton wants to sell. What else is new?... It's not a crime to force people's attention where it would not ordinarily go.... Just when we are busy with ourselves, with our bodies and our free time, images (even if they are appropriated only to create startling advertising) carry us away to other people and their tragedies. Is that so immoral?''
Artist Peter Halley is disturbed by ''Benetton's resort to endorsements by the grieving, to give validation to their media strategies.... When Benetton uses a photograph of the blood-stained clothing of a dead soldier ... the company assures us that the victim's father wishes 'that all that is left of my son be used for peace and against war.' Such recourse to the authority of the grieving and injured is extremely manipulative. We cannot argue with people whose tragic losses make their utterances unassailable.''
The nearly 10-by-20-foot billboards in the exhibition were more or less familiar to city dwellers in the 120 countries in which Benetton advertises, although not all got every ad.
The most controversial advertisements have been Toscani's photograph of the blood-soaked clothes of a young soldier killed in the former Yugoslavia, reprints of photojournalistic work (not by Toscani) on a variety of subjects including a Mafia killing, and a Liberian mercenary holding a human bone.
As French book editor Jean Crespi puts it: ''Benetton always chooses subjects such as AIDS, or the war in Bosnia, which are already big media stories and introduces them out of context.''
Ads such as Toscani's photograph of condoms in pastel colors are almost forgotten in the brouhaha over more recent photos, such as those in Benetton's 1993 ''HIV positive'' campaign.
At the time, the three photographs of a backside, abdomen, and arm stamped ''HIV positive'' provoked the strongest reactions in France. In protest, a man with AIDS published a photograph of himself marked ''HIV positive'' in a major newspaper: A caption underneath read: ''While the agony goes on, so do sales.''
Lately, some business journals speculated that such extreme advertisements have driven away customers. Benetton's current European ad campaign is made up of photographs of barbed wire in cities such as Johannesburg, Beirut, and Belgrade. They are meant to depict isolation.
The Benetton-Toscani team may have changed the way advertising is viewed. But, as a British writer says, quoting the editor of Benetton's magazine, Colors, ''The moment captured by a photograph can be manipulated as much as anything else.... The era of photography has passed into the age of painting. It can't be trusted.''