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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > articles >  Gay Themes Rise In Commercials Worldwide

Gay Themes Rise In Commercials Worldwide

Posted on October 12, 2002 and read 11,602 times

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The gay community has gone from being invisible in mainstream advertising just 10 years ago to an unprecedented inclusion today, as advertisers around the world have dramatically warmed to including gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people in their general marketing messages.

But the messages aren’t always positive. Commercials that include same-sex kisses, as well as classic gay stereotypes, reached an all time high in the year 2000, with a total of 81 gay-themed ad campaigns and 106 actual ads.

Gay themes have been sharply increasing in number since 1994, when there were 19 such campaigns, and they continued to rise to a peak in 1996 with 57 campaigns.

The well-known commercial for Swedish furniture retailer IKEA that depicted a gay couple shopping together made worldwide news in 1994, because no TV advertiser had ever shown a gay couple in a non-humorous way.

Such ads fell to 49 campaigns in 1997 – the year actor Ellen DeGeneres came out and so did her character on “Ellen” – and hit a new high in 1999 with 69 campaigns, then broke that record again last year.

The data is an assessment of the new Commercial Closet Web site database, which collects gay-themed TV commercials and gay marketing print advertisements from around the world, as a way of evaluating the messages society receives about the gay community from the powerful medium of advertising.

The newly formed non-profit organization Commercial Closet Association is a unique journalism and education project that chronicles advertising’s history of the gay community as a minority group.

The project, which contains over 500 commercials and print ads, bills itself as “the world’s largest collection of gay advertising” and shares its research and archive to encourage more gay inclusion in advertising with fewer stereotypes.

Positive and Neutral Portrayals Hit High

In 2000, the number of commercials with positive portrayals (those that lacked stereotypes and affirmed gay relationships) was also at an all-time high of 17 TV campaigns. Neutral ads (inclusive of gay people and lacking in stereotypes) was also at a record high of 25 campaigns.

Positive ads from 2000 included a lesbian couple adoption spot from John Hancock Financial Services, a crossover campaign from Showtime for “Queer As Folk” and a diversity commercial from Chevron Corp.

Neutral commercials included a racy ad from Reebok that jokes about male-male oral sex, and a motorcycle cop who kisses another male for Smint.

Negative ads (those that employ stereotypes and register a negative reaction by characters within the ads to the suggestion of homosexuality) hit a high in 1996 of 15 campaigns. The category hovered around 12 campaigns annually through 1999 and fell to 10 in 2000. A widely seen example from 2000 is a Heineken commercial called “The Male Bonding Incident” about two men who touch hands and are upset over its implications.

Despite the increase of lesbian and gay faces in commercials, the community’s visibility in advertising remains relatively low in the U.S., due to short runs for campaigns and narrow audience targets.

For example, many campaigns may run on just one cable channel, such as MTV, or on local stations in a handful of progressive cities like New York, Los Angles and San Francisco. Advertisers still rarely push the envelope on a national basis, though John Hancock Financial Services reached large audiences in 2000 by airing its lesbian adoption commercial on both the Olympics and the World Series.

Benetton, Levi and Unilever Have Included Gays the Most in Mainstream Ads

Over 260 companies are represented in the collection. Those most often creating mainstream gay commercials include Italian clothing designer Benetton Group, Levi Strauss & Co., package goods and fragrance marketer Unilever, The Gap, media conglomerate Viacom, IKEA, Heineken, Italian clothing designer Diesel and Polaroid Corp.

Separately, leading the charge with the most number of print ads into the gay market were Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and liquor company Diageo, for their Miller, Parliament, Bud Light, Absolut and other liquor brands.

While few ad agencies created more than a handful of gay-themed TV commercials, some mainstream ad agencies are well represented in the Commercial Closet collection, due to the large number of print ads they created in support of a gay marketing campaign.

DDB Needham Worldwide created the most ads, 17, for Anheuser-Busch, Diesel and Chupa Chups. TBWA Worldwide followed with 13 ads for Levi Strauss, Absolut and Benetton, then came Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide and 10 ads for clients including Coca-Cola, Heineken, AOL Time Warner and Unilever.

The Commercial Closet proactively reaches out to advertising agencies and marketers with a video lecture that details its findings.

The bulk of the project’s ad collection is from North America, with over 400 print and TV ads. Europe represents 80 commercials, the Australia/New Zealand region 20, Latin/South America 15.

Fewer than six ads each have been identified from Asia, Africa and the Middle East but Commercial Closet hopes the launch of its Web site will increase its overseas holdings dramatically as more people become aware of the project.

The Web site invites visitors to submit information about ads they’ve seen. New gay-themed advertisements will be posted to the site as they become available.

Joe Namath Pantyhose Ad Oldest Commercial in Collection

The collection has commercials dating back to 1974′s infamous Beautymist ad where football player Joe Namath wears pantyhose. The oldest example of print is a gay vague double-entendre ad from 1958, called “Mixed or Straight” for Smirnoff vodka.

To spread its message, the project has significant organizational and media partnerships, including advertising industry Web site, the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), as well as,, GAYBC Radio, The Advocate, Genre, New York City’s HX and Empire magazines and Frontiers in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Commercial Closet project got its start in 1997 as a standalone video lecture that has since toured across the U.S. and overseas to countries including Brazil, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and elsewhere for corporations, universities, ad agencies, film festivals and other events. The project continues to collect commercials worldwide for its research and a future documentary film.

The Commercial Closet project is a unique, non-profit education and journalism organization dedicated to charting the evolving worldwide portrayals of the gay community in mainstream advertising.

Its goal is to educate advertising agencies, marketers and the world-at-large as an ongoing journalistic effort and through sharing its collection and observations on how gays are represented as a minority group in commercials worldwide.

Michael Wilke is the Director of The Commercial Closet The World’s Largest Collection of Gay Advertising. A former AdvertisingAge reporter, he has charted the emergence of gay marketing and advertising since 1992




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