While LGBTQ advertising has taken a long time to become mainstream, same sex imagery is older than you might think. For many years, companies have been taking small steps toward appealing to the LGBTQ consumers even though this consumer group has an estimated spending power of $840 billion.
Brands like American Airlines, Bridgestone and Crate & Barrel have worked hard to bring their companies’ marketing “out of the closet,” as some might say. They place same sex couples in their advertising that are no doubt more than good friends. The cultural acceptance wave began with shows like Will & Grace, The Ellen Degeneres Show, Glee, and currently Strut (a reality show on transgender models). This is a trend that has actually been a couple decades in the making.
When you take a glance back through advertising history, you will find frank and startlingly male-on-male intimacy ads that date back to early in the 20th century. Companies targeted gay men in the 1920s in many mainstream publications including Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and Life. Many of the images are risqué even when compared to the standards of today. There were ads that had cherub faced frat boys, muscle men gods and small bits of nudity. In general, the advertising images have a tendency to be ambiguous and sometimes inadvertent and furtive. Their presence in advertising is undeniable.
J.C. Leyendecker was a commercial artist that created illustrations for many brands including Interwoven Socks and Arrow Shirts in the 1920s and 1930s. His illustrations influenced the tastes of men in America – very few of which knew that he was actually gay. His advertising work represented a homoerotic team of hunky playboys, life guards and crew teams. Leyendecker’s images dripped with sexual innuendo and sweat.
Often times the LGBTQ subtext is a matter of perception or personal opinion. For example, in 1943, there was ad used for Cannon towels that portrayed soldiers that are skinny dipping in the South Pacific. In 1945, there was an ad used for Faultless pajamas that showed 3 handsome men that were apparently getting dressed for a sleepover. The message is truly in the eye of the beholder. Bruce Joffe stated in his book, that straight people looking at advertising in Life and Time don’t think anything of the ads but those with a sensitivity to gay issues would recognize it right away. Many companies are not necessarily directly trying to reach the LGBTQ market but they do try to appeal to LGBTQ languages and symbols.
A good example of this is Schlitz, the Middle American beer brand that is geared toward straight men. In the years after the war, Schlitz ran ads that featured pairs of men in a wide variety of setting including a train’s bar car and a camping trip. Written on the ads, the first man confessed to the other man that he was actually “curious” about the beer, he would then “try it” and inevitably “like it”. The men exchanged knowing glances with the girlfriends and wives far away in the distance. This type of ad reads purely as camp to those who understand the LGBTQ community.
During the majority of the 20th century it was imperative that LGBTQ people remained in the closet. This is what caused a private language to be created that was shared among the community and is still used today. It was used so that LGBT people could recognize each other, and turned into shorthand that was used for marketing campaigns in the 1980s. References were in many gay publications including Outweek now known as Out and The Advocate.
When the AIDS crisis was escalating a poisonous streak of intolerance developed. Brands were really taking a major risk reaching out to the consumers in the LGBTQ community. The private language gave companies a more discreet method to reach out in advertising. This is why Keith Haring’s 1987 Absolute vodka ad made him a hero in the LGBTQ community, while he appeared to be simply an artist to the public.
In the 1990’s there were a few brands that experimented by targeting gay consumers in the mainstream media. Subaru did a series of ads in 1994 that pictured the back of the Subaru with vanity license plates including “XENA LUVR” AND “P-TOWN”. The straight people that saw the ads did not pay much attention to what was on the license plates while the LGBTQ community recognized it instantly. The first license plate was a reference to Xena: Warrior Princess which had a huge lesbian following. The second license plate was shorthand for Provincetown, MA which is an extremely popular vacation destination for the LBGTQ community.
In 2012, J.C. Penney’s Father’s Day Catalog had a page which featured a real-life same sex male couple. Todd Koch and Cooper Smith shared a playful moment with their children in the ad. With same sex marriage allowed in almost a dozen states in the United States, one might not have thought that it would create much controversy. Conservative groups began howling immediately stating that J.C. Penney was “promoting sin in their advertisements. J.C. Penney was getting used to this type of criticism as they had a similar ad that portrayed lesbian moms and by using Ellen DeGeneres as the company’s spokesperson. J.C. Penney stood by their ad stating “We want to be a store for all Americans.”
Currently, there are an increasing number of brands that want to support all Americans including the LGBTQ community, and to take advantage of the additional spending power. Companies show clear intentions using unambiguous LGBTQ advertising. A great example is the “Never Hide” campaign from Ray-Ban in 2007. This advertisement featured two English men holding hands while they crossed the street. The Gap had an ad that portrayed two men snuggling inside a t-shirt using a tagline that said “Be One”. Amazon had a television ad for their popular e-reader, the Kindle, featuring two married men that are on vacation.
Campaigns from Amazon, J.C. Penney, Ray-Ban and Gap are a sign that ambiguity in LGBTQ marketing ads is beginning to pass. It only took about a century for these brands to depict real lives of LGBTQ people whom they are trying to reach out to.