Advertising is a pretty progressive industry. We like to think of ourselves as an enlightened bunch. Some of our best friends are gay. Hell – some people in advertising are actually gay. Seriously. And yet, we all seem reluctant or incapable of portraying same-sex lifestyles in our work.
There are gay creatives, planners, producers, directors, clients and actors. And yet in adland, it seems gays don’t need mortgages, don’t drive cars, brush their teeth, play bingo or use low-fat spreads as part of a calorie-controlled diet.
There’s no question we should include ethnic minorities in our advertising. Who would even dream of digging their heels in to preserve an all-Aryan cast? We’ll feature empowered women. Strong-willed kids. And moonwalking Shetlands. But where’s even the token homosexual? They can’t all be at G.A.Y. screaming for a Kylie encore – or in hiding, surreptitiously unpicking the very fabric of our society.
Did Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s child-catcher change tack and start prowling the streets playing Barbara Streisand from a float pulled by French bulldogs, loaded with rainbows and glitterballs?
Dropping the G-Bomb
Benetton have deliberately courted controversy over the years – some executions playing ‘agent provocateur’ with same-sex relationships as their political football. But why can’t gays feature in ads because they’re normal consumers who just happen not to be heterosexual?
Look, it wouldn’t take much to stand out a mile in the UK straight-acting ad-scene. Feature gays. Leading normal lives. Arguing over dog food, trying out sofas, comparing their car insurance, living out their later years with a private pension.
Ikea ran the first gay commercial ever aired on US television in 1994. It ran for a few weeks until there was a bomb threat at one of their stores and was subsequently pulled. Have we moved on since then?
It must seem alien for gays to see themselves represented in TV shows and films but have their very existence given the cold shoulder when the ad break arrives. The few examples I’ve seen just use homosexuality as the rug-pull, the reveal, the joke. “Oh I get it, she’s actually a lesbian.” Gag, packshot, endline. Cheap.
JC Penney vs One Million Moms
JC Penney in the US used Ellen deGeneres to front their campaign which led to a storm of protest spearheaded by a Christian group calling themselves One Million Moms. They wrote, “By jumping on the pro-gay bandwagon, JC Penney is attempting to gain a new target market and in the process will lose customers with traditional values that have been faithful to them over all these years.”
So far, so predictable. But two silver linings emerged:
1: One Million turned to be a tiny fraction of that figure.
2: The backlash spawned its own backlash. The #StandUpForEllen campaign gained 50,000 signatures almost overnight and helped prompt JC Penney to er… ‘come out’ and say Ellen was their perfect brand ambassador.
In that distant land called real life, gay marriage is here. The Prime Minister – a Tory – is pushing for more rights for gays. And who’s to say he’s wrong?
Guinness made an infamous commercial portraying a gay couple back in 1995. It was ready to run, word got out, people were up in arms, the world was clearly going to end and the client lost their nerve. And in so doing, they compounded the very problem they set out to address.
Is it time for another try?
Papas and Papas
One recent exception is a Mamas and Papas campaign for their Urbo buggies, featuring heterosexual mums and dads, single-parents and a genuine gay couple and their little boy, Blu.
The press release states, “How We Roll celebrates the diversity and individualism that forms the makeup of the modern family, for whom parenting has simply become a positive extension of their current lifestyle.”
There have been mixed reactions. On Netmums, some are highly supportive – “The world is changing and it’s about time all loving parents are catered for in adverts” – while others chime in with not wanting to have this sort of thing “shoved in my face.” Freud would have a field day.
Even the gay community was sceptical. Were they being used simply as a PR stunt? Were the ads really running? It seems there are pitfalls and suspicion whatever your intentions.
Creatives want to create. We want to invent brand new stuff, never before seen. And yet there’s this vast expanse of unexplored territory: overlooked at best, taboo at worst.
It’s a rich, emotive area, surely. Love against all odds. Unconventional is cool, right? Overcoming prejudice, defying conventions, being true to yourself. You could have this space all to yourself. Column inches galore and plaudits for being progressive and well… real.
It doesn’t have to be gratuitous. No need to shock. In a way, the most shocking thing is that one of the most enlightened industries in the land is lagging so far behind the real world.