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The Evolution of LGBT Advertising

by Conswella Bennett
Contributor
Tuesday Jul 23, 2013
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This summer, as LGBT Pride celebrations began with themes of equality, inclusiveness and empowerment, some major corporations were joining in on the events by reaching out to the gay community in a number of advertising campaigns through mainstream routes.

"There has been an uptake in corporations reaching out to the LGBT community and not just through the LGBT media and pride parades," Rich Ferraro, GLAAD vice president of communications said in an interview with EDGE. "It’s a welcome trend."

Ferraro believes the recent trends of LGBT people in print and television advertising are becoming more prevalent because the straight community expect to see their world represented. Today, that world includes out and proud LGBT people who are doing normal things like working in major corporations, marrying and raising families.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that such ad campaigns could only be found in an LGBT medium like the LOGO network, a cable channel owned by Viacom and geared towards the LGBT community, or in some online or print gay entertainment and news publication. According to Ferraro, ad campaigns directed to the LGBT community "used to include drag queens, rainbows or gay men on beaches. Advertisers relied on the stereotypes about the community and what they thought would play well."

"As the fabric of America has changed advertising is a reflection of that," Ferraro added. "More advertisers are seeing us as valuable consumers."

That’s proving to be true as a number of companies have joined in creating Pride marketing campaigns, including General Mill’s Lucky Charms, Bud Light, American Airlines and Johnson & Johnson.

"We value diversity. We value inclusion. We always have... and we always will. We’re proud of our workplace, and we’re proud to be a leader for diversity and inclusion in our community," Ken Charles, vice president of global diversity and inclusion for General Mills, said in a GLAAD blog post.

The blog further stated, besides General Mills releasing its Pride ad campaign, Nike, Inc., also launched an LGBT related campaign called, "Be True." That campaign featured out sports star Jason Collins wearing a #BeTrue t-shirt during the Boston Pride Parade last month.


Some companies have gone further than creating just a Pride campaign and took the opportunity to celebrate marriage equality. Marriott Hotel, Red Bull, Grey Poupon and American Apparel have all launched pro-gay marriage ads.

Talent agencies have also seen an increase for a request for LGBT representation. Lynn Alexander and Christine DaSilva of District Talent Casting & Production in Washington D.C. have received several requests from companies seeking to use LGBT talent in print or voice over ads.

Alexander said their biggest client was a firm representing the Centers for Disease Control.

"We cast the entire 2012 ’Testing Makes Us Stronger’ campaign due to be released in print soon," she said.

A JC Penney ad released last year opted to avoid gay ambiguity and showcased two real life gay dads -- Cooper Smith and Todd Koch of Dallas, and their children -- in the department store’s Father’s Day catalog. When the ad was released, Ferraro said there was no strong pushback from activists. Companies like JC Penney, who have come out of the shadows to market to the gay community, have been heralded for being inclusive.

Though JC Penney was lauded for the ad, it did draw ire from the vehemently anti-gay group One Million Moms (a group that has far fewer than a million mothers as members). The organization accused the company for becoming pro-gay after they added lesbian comedian Ellen DeGeneres as its spokesperson. But, Mike Wilke, founder of AdRespect, a website dedicated to promoting advertising that respects diversity, gender identity/expression and sexual orientation, said OMM was late to the game. He said DeGeneres had already done an endorsement for an American Express campaign in 2006, and her talk show was a success.

"JC Penney did their homework and knew they couldn’t give in to the pressure," said Wilke. "JC Penney said they shared the same values as DeGeneres and that she represents the ideas of the company’s brand."

Companies like JC Penney learned from the experiences of companies like Ford Motor Company. The automaker was known for supporting gay rights in the past and for making financial donations to various gay rights organizations. It was because of the company’s pro-gay attitudes that they were boycotted by the conservative Christian group the American Family Association in 2005, Wilke recalled.


According to Wilke, Ford had been doing a fantastic job and had even received a 100 percent score from the Human Rights Campaign Corporate Equality Index. The Index is the HRC’s national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices related to LGBT employees.

"Today advertisers learned the lesson from Ford if you decide to do an LGBT friendly ad they have to stick with it," he said.

Long before any of these recent campaigns was launched, however, one of the earliest ad campaigns with a possible gay theme was for Ivory soap in 1917. It was a black and white print campaign that appeared in National Geographic, recalled Wilke.

In an interview with EDGE, Wilke said the idea of the Ivory ad may not have been to be gay or gay themed but the ad’s illustrator, J.C. Leyendecker, was gay.

"Was he intentionally or unintentionally creating an image that was gay vague? At that time, gay identity was nothing close to what we know it today," Wilke said.

According to the AdRespect library, the ad showed nudity and men showering together in a locker room, hinting that the men may have wandering eyes. It was a common Ivory ad theme during the time period.

AdRespect is an online library collection of corporate ads with direct references to LGBT people of LGBT themes, including political ads and those from government and health agencies, nonprofits, gay and anti-gay organizations.

One of the earliest television ads included a trans theme, Wilke said. In 1952, Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. used drag in a television commercial, which was advertising the first roll anti-perspirant deodorant called Ban.

Wilke, a former business journalist for Advertising Age, said there was a surge of advertising in the 1970s from alcohol beverage companies like Coors, Miller Brewing Company, Anheuser Busch and books and movie companies were beginning to include gay themes. It was during this time that the gay movement was gaining momentum, which created an interest in gay advertising. But, after the AIDS crisis, he said, companies and advertisers were frightened away from anything gay-related.


There was another twist during the 2000s and even today. Wilke said companies that have advertised to the LGBT community "were considered to be brave to put themselves in the gay market."

In Wilke’s opinion, the brands that have made their mark in the LGBT market have stayed consistent and have not simply created a single ad. One of these success stories is Absolut Vodka. Absolut was the first to advertise in The Advocate and Out magazine, "and it managed to successfully brand itself in the gay community," he added.

A number of people believe that Absolut is the first to advertise in gay media, but according to Wilkes it is not.

"It’s the one people remember because it was consistent in many publications over time," he said. The first ad for the gay community appeared in 1981 in a well-known art and entertain magazine called After Dark. It was not a gay publication, but because a lot of gay men read and took part in the magazine, Wilke said, it became a de facto gay magazine.

With the increased number of corporations developing ads to reach the community, Wilke said, "the LGBT community has felt validated... Now, we have a new bar -- advertisers being gay inclusive in mainstream advertising." In order to be effective and appealing, Wilke believes that companies need to be seen as progressive and inclusive instead of doing an ad to reach the gay market.

"It isn’t dangerous, it makes good business sense," Wilke said.


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