Mad Ave's Other Diversity Problem

Commercial Closet Calls on Agencies to Eliminate LGBT Stereotypes in Ads

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NEW YORK ( -- Race isn't the only diversity issue causing a stir in the ad industry. A letter being distributed to agency heads this week is calling out Madison Avenue for its stereotypical portrayal of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

The letter was drafted by Michael Wilke, executive director of Commercial Closet Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to educate the ad industry on the preferred ways to incorporate or refer to the LGBT community in advertising. The letter's signers range from New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn to Nancy Hill, CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

In the letter, the participants ask the ad industry to "re-examine any lingering conventional wisdom that LGBT stereotypes, homophobia and transphobia are considered successful approaches to selling products by actually testing it with general audiences."

'Critical mass'
In an interview, Mr. Wilke said the call to action wasn't prompted by any particular incident or LGBT-insensitive campaign but rather a "critical mass of things that have been followed by the media that are showing a greater awareness and the potential for change. I guess you could say I was looking to create momentum on those things."

Mr. Wilke cited recent ads from Nike and Snickers that were considered homophobic as part of that critical mass, adding, however, that the marketers' responses to those spots showed signs of limited progress. "More often than in the past, advertisers are taking [insensitive ads] down quickly when they realize they're not being well-received -- and not usually with an actual apology, just acknowledging things are not going well."
Michael Wilke
Michael Wilke

Occasionally, corporations will make good on advertising that's seen as homophobic by creating gay-inclusive ads, such as the "Lipstick" spot T-Mobile aired in 2005 as a response to its 2003 "Basketball" commercial, which was viewed as saying insufficient masculinity was socially unacceptable. But such corporate turnarounds are still rare, Mr. Wilke said.

Agency efforts
Some agencies also are starting to get more organized in their LGBT efforts. Three years ago, Havas' Arnold Worldwide established AMEN, the Arnold Multlicultural Employee Network, to create more awareness around diversity. Earlier this summer, the agency added ARC, the Arnold Rainbow Coalition, to "see some similarities between both of our fights," said Tiffany R. Warren, AMEN's director, referring to race and gender. "Generally when diversity is talked about, it really begins and ends with ethnicity. ... Hopefully this will be a sounding call to the industry to look at this issue seriously." Ms. Warren is also Arnold Worldwide VP-director of multicultural programs and community outreach and a contributor to Ad Age's Big Tent blog.

Katie Kelly, an associate broadcast producer for Arnold and the New York chair of ARC, said, "Brands are already asking: 'How can we start incorporating LGBT issues into our campaigns?'"

Mr. Wilke said he hopes the letter will create awareness of Commercial Closet as well as its signatories' assistance in bringing sensitivities to light. "We want to increase attention to both positive as well as problematic representations. The more attention given to them, the quicker responses we'll see by those companies."

The letter's signatories include New York Sen. Thomas Duane; New York State Assembly members Deborah Glick; Daniel O'Donnell and Micah Kellner; New York City Council member Rosie Mendez; Michael McLaren, U.S. president of McCann Erickson; Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; New York City Comptroller William Thompson; and Tony Wright, CEO of Lowe Worldwide.

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