How Ready Is America Really for Gay-Themed Advertising?

Gay Lifestyle Shows Up More Often, but Still Makes Many Uncomfortable

By Published on .

Times sure have changed since the days when gay people referred to themselves as "friends of Dorothy," signaling their icon Judy Garland's role in "The Wizard of Oz." It was a code phrase, a necessary thing for gays, who had to live an underground existence, meeting in shady clubs in the nastier parts of town, braving police raids and gangs of gay bashers.

Today we have an ad by Amazon in which an attractive man and woman are reading, side by side, at the beach, the man struggling with the sun glare of his iPad. She suggests he buy a Kindle Paperwhite, which he immediately orders. He suggests they celebrate. "My husband's bringing me a drink right now," she says. "So is mine," he responds with a smile.

From the point of view of the gay and lesbian community, this ad is, as one industry executive told me, "profoundly important." Its execution is flawless. There's no ballyhoo or fanfare. It doesn't say, "Look at us! We're being gay!" And it aired on a broad range of popular platforms from Fox Entertainment to Spike TV to NBC.

At a time when 12 states have legalized same-sex marriage, and the president has endorsed it, the decision as to whether or not to embrace the LGBT community is a lot less tricky than it has ever been. While LGBT-targeted advertising was traditionally confined to gay media, or "gay-vague" mainstream ads, a recent article in the Huffington Post points to a multitude of ads like Amazon's that are aimed at a larger audience.

But, even so, just how ready is much of America for gay-themed advertising?

J.C. Penny is an interesting case in point. The company decided to renew its support for Ellen DeGeneres, after the organization One Million Moms, a project of the anti-gay American Family Association, asked shoppers to call the company and demand that they replace lesbian DeGeneres as a spokesperson. Penny followed up with a Father's Day ad featuring two real-life gay dads.

When gay-friendly CEO Ron Johnson stepped down after the company's stock dropped by 50 percent, right-wingers proclaimed victory. "It's obvious that JCP would rather take sides than remain neutral in the culture war," said One Million Moms. "We must remain diligent and stand up for biblical values and truth."

No matter that it was mostly the failure of Johnson's "no-sales" policy rather than his sympathy for gay rights that led to his downfall. The reaction is reminder that millions of Americans remain uncomfortable with the presence of gays on their TVs and smartphones.

There are surely limits to how far advertising can go portraying advancing social trends. We've had decades of black faces being added to commercials and television shows, and yet General Mills just set off a firestorm of racist comments after it produced a brilliantly touching Cheerios spot featuring a biracial little girl and her African American father and white mother.

At the moment, the list of brands targeting a gay audience in their ads is a long one. Marriott is reaching out to gay travelers with a web-based campaign, "Be You, With Us." Allstate developed a social-media campaign "Equality Is." Oreo launched a gay cookie. GAP, American Airlines, Chevy and Target are just other examples of companies planting the gay flag.

And they stand to reap the benefits. According to Witeck Communications and Harris Interactive, 75 percent of gay men and lesbians say they are likely to remain loyal to a brand they believe to be gay-friendly. More than 60 percent said that, all things being equal, they would select a brand that is known for being gay-friendly. As Karen Post, the author of "Brand Turnaround," notes, big companies like this don't make big investments without doing their homework.

Bob Witeck, CEO and co-founder of Witeck Communications, estimates the number of gay adults in the United States to exceed 16 million, with a buying power of about $800 billion. Add to that the growing number of straight Americans who support the gay community, and you're talking big numbers for advertisers.

As a gay man who grew up in New Hampshire in the 1970s, I can attest to just how meaningful and moving it is when a brand like J.C. Penny takes a stand. But it's not just important to alter kakers like me. Today's young gays face many serious challenges. Many are coming out earlier, which can mean ridicule and bullying. HIV remains a deadly reality, and studies show that infection rates are on the rise among young gay men. We all have straight friends and family who appreciate a brand that is willing to go out on a limb.

But it's one thing to accept gay marriage -- for the first time in history, a majority of Americans, depending on the poll, favor allowing homosexuals to marry legally -- and another to have it aggressively portrayed on your iPhone. Gay may not be "the new black," as some have argued, but the walls of the corporate closet are clearly falling, one by one. It's up to our industry to read the pulse of America to see how far we can go.


Most Popular