In 1994, Ikea created a wave of controversy when they became one of the first companies to market to the gay community on mainstream daytime television. Despite the initial backlash; this ad eventually sparked countless other companies jump on the “Gay and Lesbian Advertising Bandwagon”. But what is the motive behind advertising specifically to this community, do the businesses take a genuine interest in the gay community or is it strictly for expanding business? Additionally, once a business decides to advertise using gay content, what is the appropriate way to go about doing so, and how does their strategy differ between gays and lesbians? Only 4 to 10% of the population identifies themselves as gay or lesbian. (Okenfull, 50) So why are businesses so concerned with gaining the support of this demographic? One of the biggest reasons being their buying power. While they don’t make more than heterosexual couples, a large majority are not raising children, so they have more disposable income. Thus, they have even been referred to as the “Dream Market” with a potential buying power of $641 billion annually (Okenfull, 49). Because this is the foremost reason why advertisers go after the gay community, this makes us question whether they have a genuine interest in the gay community.
“We market to gays and lesbians for business reasons because we want to sell out product to consumers. It doesn’t get more complicated than that.“ -Miller beer spokeswoman (Sender, 2)
It is common knowledge that the only point of advertisement is to drive in more business. However, analyzing the overall impact of advertising on society, it seems as if there is more that comes into play than just a business decision. In fact, regardless of the company's motive to produce advertisements that have gay content, the overall impact of infiltrating gay content into mainstream media has actually helped advance and liberate the gay community. Big corporations not only reflect society’s current values, but they are also largely responsible for shaping society's values.
If there are more gay and lesbian imagery in the media, society will adapt the perception that they are everywhere and normalizes gayness. Also, having large corporations back a minority-based cause, will make the majority more accepting and make the people in opposition to the cause seem more ignorant. Essentially, even just the facade of a company publicly declaring their support for gayness makes a powerful statement to society.
Not only is appearing to be in support of gay rights is something that will boost your business, but to have any anti-gay statement or claims can detrimentally hurt your company as well. In 1977, Coors was accused of firing gays, along with several other minority groups. (Journal of Community Research) Not long after much controversy, chairman Pete Coors adopted an Gay-Friendly policy and also extended benefits to same-sex couples. In 2000, Coors hiked up their spending on gay advertising, putting them in the number two spot for most money spent on gay advertisements. (Chura, 1)
After a company becomes seen as anti-gay, it is evident that they must fight desperately to overcome this stigma just to stay in the game. Beer is a prime example of a product that's advertisements have saturated the gay market to the extent of which if you do not participate, then you’re stance on gay rights is questioned.
There is a very positive outcome for the many companies that show their support to the gay community as well as a negative outcome for companies that don’t. Despite this; it still leaves many consumers skeptical of their motives. Many advertisements, in a failed attempt to show acceptance, have become the target of gay critics. The harshest of backlash of these ads are in ones in which they depict obvious and offensive gay stereotypes. It is evident that advertisers must handle these types of ads with care, depicting gay stereotypes can lead to further segregation rather than promoting equality. Gay consumers are very skeptical to how a company presents gay advertisements, but perhaps the biggest obstacle is to still keep heterosexual consumers that are turned off by or blatantly opposed to homosexuality. When Ikea first ran their ad on daytime television, there was a positive response from gay consumers. However, during this time period it still created enough controversy that outweighed the benefits of appealing to that market. This is when agencies quickly realized that limiting their advertisements to the confines of strictly gay and lesbian print media such as OUT magazine was a safer route for the time being. Although the initial reaction by heterosexuals to this first commercial was negative and controversial, this was also a time in history where the attitude around gay media was at a turning point . Gay shows became less of a niche market, and more mainstream. “More recently, gay-oriented shows such as the L Word, Will and Grace, Ellen, Queer as Folk, and Queer Eye for a Straight Guy have increasingly pushed the boundaries of cultural accepatnce of homosexuality and have diminished the risk of backlash for firms who are percieved to be “gay friendly.” (Okenfull, 50)
Shows dealing with this content presumably have made the hetereosexual community more understanding to this type of lifestyle and generationally speaking, the current generation became much more likely to support the gay rights movement. Thus, integrating gay ads into mainstream television and print media was back on the table. Because the decision for advertisers to target the gay community is still a very controversial subject for both straight and gay consumers, it is imperative to acknowledge the vast differences in how to effectively target this audience. First, it is important to recognize gay male consumers and lesbian female consumers as a very different audience. Additionally, it is important to assess how strong their gender identity is. The strength of one’s gender identity is based on several different factors, such as how strong their involvement and sense of belonging is to the gay community. Gay males that are identified as having a high degree of sexual identity, are more attracted to ads that display explicit gay content. (Okenfull, 54)
To illustrate an ad that is “explicitly” gay, (refer to picture 1), I chose Virgin Mobiles “Hook up Fearlessly”. The ad almost positively insinuates that the two males depicted in the ad are gay, if not gay, then extremely turned on by the a gay act. This type of explicitness would be most attractive to males who have a high gay identity rather than low. There is a large power construct in this advertisement. The male with wings is forcefully holding down the other male to kiss him while the male on bottom, while he does seem submissive, he is still enjoying the act taking place. I personally like this ad; mostly because of the actual relevance to the buying process. Consumers always have an apprehension to buying products, let alone a phone contract. This ad is conveying to the potential consumer to just give in and try it. While the male on bottom might have been apprehensive about the kiss, just as “You’ll Love Us” guarantee gives you the freedom to chose without “strings attached”. It is a “Just try it!” ad, and while hooking up in an office space is taboo; doing it with with a gay angel is even more controversial and daring, and you might just “Love It”. I like this ad because it communicates the point fluidly, and replaces any uncertainty with a sense of empowerment and fearlessness.
While ads like these are very effective in communicating with the demographic who have a strong sense of gender identity, low identity gays and lesbians are more responsive to a less explicit type of advertising. Generally, gays and lesbians who have a low sense of gender identity want to define themselves by traits other than just their sexual preference.
By being less explicit, they get the opportunity to read between the lines, not feel alienated by their gender identity, and not have their identity to be oversexualized. To target this audience, advertisers indicates gayness without actually using a lesbian or gay couple. Instead they use implicit gay imagery which uses symbols and phrases that indicates gayness such as rainbows, pride, and being “out”. (Okenfull, 55)
To illustrate an add that does this, I chose Chevy’s electric car ad (refer to ad 2). There are a mother and father car facing their child car. The caption says “Mom, Dad, I’m electric.” The bottom of the page uses a thin bar that is intended to look like a rainbow. The copy at the bottom is “So, whatever revs your engine, we support you 100%, Happy Motor City Pride from the entire Chevrolet family.”
This is another ad that I think is done beautifully. They used a social norm of what society knows as the “coming out scene”. The electric car is declaring that it is not just any old car, just as a gay or lesbian would have to come out to their parents that they are not just another heterosexual. What also intrigues me about that ad is the italics on “I’m electric”. This is presumably a play off the upbeat “It’s electric” song. The car is excited to tell its parents that he is gay, conveying a sense of empowerment and excitement, instead of how we typically think of this moment, which can often be a shameful and intimidating moment for many children.
I also really like the ad for it’s relevance to the gay community. According to a recent survey, only ⅓ of hetereosexuals admitted to being concerned about the environment while 55% of gays and lesbians identified that they are more likely to “go green”. (Koretzky). It is targeting consumers that are interested in their message, while also encouraging acceptance and becoming empowered.
While even high identity lesbians are most attracted to implicit gay imagery, their liking towards explicit lesbian imagery comes secondary (before explicit gay imagery). But interestingly enough, lesbian imagery is extremely underrepresented. It was reported that in one of leading gay and lesbian magazines, The Advocate, lesbian-targeted imagery accounted for only 3% of the magazine advertising. Why is this? (Okenfull, 65)
Not only do lesbians have typically just as much buying power as gay males, but heterosexual consumers are even more comfortable with lesbian imagery over gay imagery, which lowers the risk of heterosexuals being offended or turned off from a product. In general, lesbians are less discriminated than gays. this is something that shows up in the workplace; according to a recent study, gay males make 23% less than straight males, lesbians make about the same as straight women. (Williams Institute)
Perhaps society taking a particular favoritism to lesbianism is the very reason that advertisements that depicting lesbians couples in ads targeted towards lesbians are more underrepresented. There is a oversexualization attenuated by the heterosexual community of how lesbians are viewed. I chose an ad that was apart of a campaign for a swiss Italian ski resort (picture 3). A website was commenting on the success of this ad with the title of the Article “Lesbians Good for Ski Business.” the comment on this ad stated, “Seems some brilliant ad agency came up with a campaign to promote the Swiss Italian ski resort Airolo by featuring two women about to kiss (pictured above). We’re going to hazard a guess that the intended demographic was not lesbians. They were probably targeting lager louts looking for a good stag party getaway now that Prague has kicked them out.” (Get Outdoor Blog)
The imagery does not have any clever tagline, or anything to empower lesbains. In fact, one of the main centerpieces of the point of this ad is the male in the background completely enamored and excited by the thought of two girls kissing. The comment on the article even states that “the intended demographic was not lesbains.” and makes the point that this ad was to promote a party scene. In fact, most viewers probably would not even assume the two girls in the ad as lesbians.
By no means does the ad seem to support the gay community, it rather just sexualizes the fantasy of watching two women make out. A sexual lesbian experience can be arousing to straight men and women, conveying a “party” type of experience while if the couple was actually a gay couple about to engage in a kiss, this ad would most likely be only arousing to gay men, and convey the message that “We are a gay friendly place” rather than a “Party Place”.
Another advertisement that depicts the sexual objectification of women is the Nikon ad. There is a hand holding up a camera in which he captures the image of two women in lingerie on top of each other. While the gender of the person taking the photo is not identified, it appears to be a male.
Because of the interest in the (presumed) male figure, this ad makes it very evident that the relationship between the two women is not a committed lesbian relationship. It is portrayed to be just a sexual one with an objective to please the male. The copy at the bottom states that the Nikon S60 detects up to 12 faces. When you look closer at the ad, you can spot four males in the adjacent apartment building watching the girl-on-girl action.
Many consumers were very upset with this ad, believing it to be both sexist and delegitimizing to lesbian relationships. They made the argument that,
“the advertisement is sexist relies heavily on the notion that the lesbians are unwitting, innocent subjects violated by a voyeuristic male glaze.” (Turnbell)
The writer refutes this argument by stating that the two women made the conscious decision to objectify themselves by leaving the curtains open, as well letting another male to capture their (not-so) intimate moment on a camera. Additionally, the ad is relevant to the product because it successfully communicates in a clever way that that even though the faces are so far away, the camera is advanced enough to still detect the voyeurs faces.
Personally, I completely agree with the writer's argument. However, I would also argue that these types of ads do present a problem to the lesbian community. How can advertisements tastefully depict a lesbian encounter that meaningfully supports and empowers the lesbian community? Also, how can you conveys that the two women are legitimately homosexual, rather than a sexualizing their experience?
This objectification of the lesbian relationship is likely why many lesbian advertisements are underrepresented. In general, they are most comfortable to advertisements that use implicit hints of sexuality rather than involving males or females (such as the car commercial).
Some argue that “lesbians are female versions of male sexuality”, but this argument is scrutinized because lesbians describe their experience to be completely different. Typically, lesbians are more socially accepted than gay males are. However, they have to fight harder to convince society that their identity is more than just a sexual desirability of a female.
One company that has successfully done so is JC Penny’s. In 2012, they released their “Freedom of Expression” ad (See Picture 5) that features two mothers and their daughter. While a group called “One Million Mothers” presented backlash to this ad, the overall response was positive. There is no overt sexual nature in this picture, it is just depicting a family photo with two mothers.
“As jcpenney focuses on becoming America’s favorite store, we want to be a store for all Americans. In celebration of Mother’s Day, we’re proud that our May book honors women from diverse backgrounds who all share the heartwarming experience of motherhood.” -Eric Bovin (ABC news)
In conclusion; advertisers have recognized the great importance of tapping into the gay market. Not only is establishing your company as being in support of this cause positive, but in some markets; it is necessary.
Overall, Advertising to the gay and lesbian community is not one-size-fits-all. It are also specific precautions that you must take in entering into this type of market. Not only are you going up against the criticisms of anti-gay groups, but you are also up against the scrutiny of whether your advertisement is legitimate or whether you are using the leverage of the gay community to seem more accepting and grow your consumer base. There are Advertising Agencies must take into account the way in which homosexuals identify themselves in terms of their involvement as well as the how males and females differ in what appeals to them.
Hilary Chura, “Coors hikes spending on gay ads, March 27, 2000
Katherine Sender, Business Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market, New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, 331 pp.,
"The Dynamics of Brand Legitimacy: An Interpretive Study in the Gay Men's Community (PDF)". Journal Article, Journal of Consumer Research, University of Chicago Press. JSTOR 10. Going Green, Going Gay? Micheal Koretzky, Jan 13, 2011
The Williams Institute, "Documented Evidence of Employment Discrimination and Its Effects on LGBT People" (July 2011).
Get Outdoors Blog, “Lesbians for Good Ski Business” (Decemebr 21,2007)
James Turnbell, “A Sexist Advertisement? Lesbians and the Politics of the Male Glaze” (December 13, 2008)
ABC News, “JC Penney Features Same Sex Couple in May Catalouge”, (May 12, 2012)