If it’s not already apparent from the onslaught of rainbow-themed merchandise on display at malls across America, June is Gay Pride month. And while the overcommercialization of holidays tends to insight naysayers, critics, and purists, it’s hard to see this turn of events as anything but a win for both the LGBTQ community and humanity as a whole. In the not too distant past, it would have been unthinkable that retailers, including Macy’s, Target, and even gun-loving, music-lyric censoring Walmart would be stocking their shelves with LGBTQ pride merch. So as we near the 50th anniversary of Stonewall— it’s June 28th— this small San Francisco ad agency would like to add to the marketing fanfare with a look at the evolution of LGBTQ inclusion in advertising.
The backlash that ensued after Ellen Degeneres outed herself on her self titled 1997 sitcom, which aired on ABC, is a good place to start. Advertisers including Chrysler and JC Penny boycotted the episode, and Wendy’s stopped advertising altogether. In the months that followed, religious groups began picketing the studio. There were death threats, bomb scares and endless hate mail. The network responded by backing off on promoting the show and even aired disclaimers before every episode suggesting there may be themes that are “inappropriate for children.” Eventually, the show was canceled.
And while homophobia may have been socially acceptable in the nineties, not every CMO was complicit in tolerating it.
In 1994 a small, but rapidly expanding Swedish furniture company called IKEA became the very first company to feature a gay couple in a mainstream ad. Ikea ran the ad after 10 p.m. in three markets: New York, Philadelphia as well as Washington, D.C. It did this intentionally so as not to conflict with "family hour" programming. But this concession did little to silence the objections of the American Family Association and its leaders who called for boycotts of Ikea stores. The retailer, however, continued to air the ad, which was part of a lifestyle campaign featuring different types of consumers, including a divorced mom, adopting parents, and an empty nester couple. (Keep this in mind the next time you try to assemble one of their particle board desks only to discover half the screws you need to hold it together are missing. It will keep your frustrations in check.)
Other retailers took a softer approach: In 1997 Volkswagen aired its “Sunny Afternoon” spot (also called Da Da Da) which featured two young guys rescuing a piece of furniture discarded on the street in their VW Golf. Incidentally, the spot debuted on the Ellen coming out episode. But unlike the Ikea spot, the relationship between these two men was intentionally left vague. Were they friends, roommates or boyfriends? It allowed for multiple interpretations meant to cushion against criticism. The spot was perhaps the first in a category known hereafter as “gay-vague.”
John Hancock Financial Services
In 2000 John Hancock Financial Services aired a spot where two Caucasian women are in line at a crowded airport immigration line, holding an infant girl with Asian features. As they're waiting, they coo over the sleeping baby. One might infer from the dialogue that the two women are a couple on their way home with their newly adopted daughter. The tagline: "Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for opportunities. John Hancock." Then on the cutaway with only audio, one woman says to the other, "You're going to make a great mom." Her partner replies, "So are you." The company, of course, caught flack for the ad. And while they didn’t pull it, they did send it back to the editing room, pulled out the cutaway dialogue from the end and ran a re-released, “gay vague” version. (We scoured the internet to find a link to this one but came up empty. If any knows finds send us the URL so we can post)
Fast forward another eight years and America was still struggling to come to terms with LBGTQ PDA. The Heinz company went for it anyway releasing a commercial for Deli Mayo. It opened on a typical morning scene as a family gets ready to start their day. There’s the obligatory kiss as dad goes off to work. Nothing amiss here, except that this man’s spouse is also a man. A week after its airing, Heinz caved to pressure after receiving hundreds of complaints from consumers suggesting it was “offensive” and ‘inappropirate to see two men kissing.”
Even today, any of these ads might still cause a stir in some communities. The difference: Today advertisers are much more likely to stay the course because the backlash from the other side for caving to social pressure will be that much greater. That said: there’s still plenty of room for companies to push the envelope and show consumers what America really looks like. Last month, Gillette did just that, running a documentary style commercial featuring a father teaching his transgender son how to shave. Simple idea. Well executed. Wish we’d thought of it.
Being an ad man or ad woman may not be as noble a profession as, say, a teacher, a social worker, or a mental health counselor. But it’s worth remembering that a good advertising campaign can do more than just sell widgets. We can use our craft to change the way people see the world, shape public opinion, and focus on the greater good.
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