The scores—especially in the aggregate—offer a quasi-statistical answer to what is an arguably subjective question: Has the advertising industry—and the brands behind the ads—made progressive gains in its portrayals of gays and lesbians? The overall results offer a mixed picture. Of the 4,000 ads, only 35 percent earned a positive rating, while 36 percent earned a neutral score and 11 percent were classified as purporting stereotypes and 18 percent earned a negative rating, which in most cases indicates violent themes.
Indeed, surfing through the library is a paradoxical exercise. Of course, signs of progress are not hard to find, for example, a 2007 TV spot, via Bartle Bogle Hegarty, for Levi Strauss & Co., of a male couple walking down the street hand in hand (Score 100). Then there’s a 2008 print ad from Levi with the message “We support the right of every American to marry” on a black and white photo of the backsides of two men donning the brand’s jeans, the hand of one man resting gently on a back pocket.
But spots with homophobic underpinnings are also in abundance, including the controversial 2007 Snickers Super Bowl spot from Mars Inc. via TBWA Worldwide. In the spot, two auto mechanics share a candy bar until it is gone and they kiss. The pulling out of chest-hair follows. (Score: 44. “The ad suggests that accidental contact between two men of the same sex is worthy of self-mutilation in order to assert the authenticity of one's heterosexuality,” the site notes.) As a result, the spot was pulled. But Mars Inc. fared far better in a 2007 spot, via the same agency. In this ad, a man strums a guitar, singing a song about the candy bar as he serenades a co-worker. “The first man originally seems perplexed, then begins to nod his head and sway to the music. The men exchange glances that could be interpreted as homoerotic,” the site notes. Score: 100.
“In many ways, things have been in a similar place for several years. From an advertising standpoint, there’s a lot of good stuff happening in terms of the creative even though there’s a reasonable amount that’s problematic,” said Michael Wilke, founder and executive director of Commercial Closet. “We are in a transitional period. Some companies are understanding these issues and others are not. And it’s not consistent either. From the same agency we can get both types of work and sometimes from the same client.”
Despite this consistent inconsistency, some things are rather reliable when it comes to gay-themed ads, like the reaction from conservative right-wing groups, including Focus on the Family, the AFTAH (Americans for Truth About Homosexuality) and the American Family Association. In an age of e-mail and online alerts, the potential for controversy continues to deter some brands from utilizing more progressive, convention-busting strategies. “Anti-gay groups will always try to scare organizations who are trying to be inclusive or gay friendly,” Mr. Wilke said.
This backlash can sometimes influence where gay-themed ads end up. “The gist of efforts to reach the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) audience by corporations is still in the LGBT media,” he said.
Even so, Mr. Wilke believes it is not just fear driving media-buying decisions, but practical considerations.
“It’s simply a more effective way to reach the largest number of consumers in that target audience. It’s a matter of spending and budgetary opportunities,” he added.
For advertisers that do make the effort, the upside is big, especially considering the US$ 641 billion in estimated spending power.
Blaine J. Branchik, associate professor of marketing at Quinnipiac University and the author of the recent article, “Queer Ads: Gay Male Imagery in American Advertising” that appeared in the June 2007 issue of the journal Consumption Marketers Culture, said many hurdles abound despite plenty of tangible examples of progress.
“Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and six steps back. You can find great examples and then just horrible ads and you have to ask, what were they thinking?” Mr. Branchik said.
In his research, Mr. Branchik has defined four stages in the depiction of gays in advertising: invisibility, ridicule and scorn, opinion leadership and diversity.