Allow me to set a scene for you -- the year is 1994, and you’re living in the hoppin' environment of New York City, doing your best to emulate this new show “Friends” that just started and everyone won’t shut up about. You’re coming back from a night on the town, maybe of rocking out to the Beastie Boys’ new hit “Sabotage” -- f you’re looking for something softer, maybe some “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz II Men. Maybe you’re coming from the movies and about to begin life anew as one of the millions of people who won’t stop quoting “Forrest Gump” or “Pulp Fiction.” You arrive at your apartment, crash on the couch, and flip on the T.V., fixing to watch David Letterman’s new late night talk show on CBS, but instead see something your ‘90s self definitely wasn’t expecting.
It’s a commercial for Ikea. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a couple browsing the store, trying to put together the perfect dining room. You know, Ikea stuff. But at the time what floored people about this commercial is that the featured couple is two men. It’s not flashy or pandering or cliche by any means, it’s just a casual commercial about a couple creating a dining room. But the fact that it was two men was such a groundbreaking occurrence that it completely upended the notion of what could commercially be portrayed as a family, and it totally changed the landscape of advertising. This was the dawn of the LGBTQ community’s acknowledgment in marketing.
The right stuff
In the two decades following that brazenly ambitious Ikea ad, more and more advertisements have been released featuring same sex couples, but not without controversy. In 2013, J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson was fired for authorizing not just one same-sex ad, with two women celebrating Mother’s Day, but one with two men celebrating Father’s Day as well. In 2010, McDonald’s released an ad featuring a young man pondering to come out to his father, but it ended up being aired in France and not America.
But the LGBTQ community still shows up in advertising, with major companies releasing some truly memorable ads. On the print aspect, Absolut has been active in the market for almost thirty years, featuring several famous ads; a Ray Ban ad features two proud men holding hands and walking through the streets of New York City, encouraging people to “Never Hide;” General Motors went a little cheekier when they advertised for their Chevy Volt, choosing to celebrate Pride Week by having the Volt tell his vehicular parents “Mom, Dad, I’m Electric.” On the video production front, Amazon and Toyota went for a pair of brilliant bait and switches, choosing not to reveal the sexuality of their ads’ characters until the very end of the commercial to some solid comedic effect. Wells Fargo went more sentimental, with a revered and undeniably moving commercial about a pair of women learning sign language for their soon to be adopted daughter (you have to be a certifiable monster to not be affected by this one). These are some very effective, heartfelt, well-executed ads.
edgar allen faux
However, there are cases where that pure desire to make some cash reveals a company’s faux-liberalism is really just a cash grab. While it can be great to see added awareness, there can be obvious frustrations with perpetuated stereotypes and cliches. For example, Budweiser’s print ad of a bottle being pulled from a six-pack that reads “another one coming out,” followed by the lazy “be yourself and enjoy a Bud Light” really isn’t the finest example of earnest advertising. Sure, Doritos and Burger King had rainbow products to honor Pride, but really, it’s much easier to just throw some color on a burger wrapper and say you’re supporting Pride than actually committing to creating something honest and meaningful. Sort of an issue of showing, not telling. Nobody wants to be emotionally pandered to or manipulated.
Even more middle of the road in terms of LGBTQ advertising is what some advertisers call “gay vague” advertising. In fact, it’s as middle of the road as you can possibly get; it’s like a proverbial deer in headlights. Do you dart across the road and make a mad dash to fully commit to LGBTQ advertising, or do you literally turn tail and head back to traditionalism? Well, gay vague advertising chooses to stand right there in the middle of the street, and have you make the choice of veering one way or the other. One of the best and most famous early examples of gay vague advertising would be the Schlitz Beer “I Was Curious” ads in the late 1940s. Typically these ads featured two couples, and the man in one of the couples is “curious” to try a Schlitz beer. So he and the man from the other couple drink a few, usually while their girlfriends/wives end up chatting in the background, and the ad ends with the two men staring at each other happily, apparently enjoying the beer. Or are they enjoying each other’s company? Or both? This is exactly what Schlitz was going for. If you’re in the LGBTQ community and you see this ad, clearly it’s about an LGBTQ couple. If you’re a heterosexual, clearly it’s just a couple buddies enjoying a beer. It’s all in the eye of the beer-holder, as the old saying goes. It’s difficult to deny that it’s a pretty deft strategy in terms of advertising, as it plays to many perceptions. However, it's difficult to categorize this as being particularly progressive.
So whether you agree or disagree with the existence of LGBTQ advertising, the fact of the matter is ... it exists. It comes in many different forms; some good, some bad. Raising awareness is a positive, but the endgame of LGBTQ advertising should be to represent that community accurately. Nothing on the nose, nothing formulaic, nothing overly sentimental or hackneyed; just a casual representation of a community that doesn’t want to be perceived as overly different, portrayed as a stereotype, or seen as forcing a stereotype on anyone else. Just as casual as a couple of dudes picking a dining room set from Ikea.
Thanks again for reading this week guys! Check out the rest of our bloggage and what else we do at Trove on our website! We’ll be back next week to finish up our advertising through the decades blog series, Ad Nauseam, as we dive into the 1980s and ‘90s!