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Pride: 10 Milestones and Controversies in Mainstream Gay Advertising


Here are 10 of the most talked-about gay ads in advertising history.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL In 2011, tech behemoth Google (GOOG) ran an ad for its Chrome browser featuring Dan Savage's anti-gay bullying It Gets Better project. This year, JC Penney (JCP) signed openly gay Ellen DeGeneres to be its spokesperson and released a Father's Day print ad featuring a gay couple, while competitor Gap (GPS) plastered a large billboard with two gay men in Los Angeles for its "Be Bright" campaign. Other companies like General Motors (GM) and Marriott (MAR) have also produced lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (or LGBT)-themed ads in 2012.

Clearly, LGBT-friendly ads have gone mainstream in recent years, with corporations now recognizing the power of the pink dollar. It also feels like the pendulum is swinging in the sphere of politics with President Obama coming out for same-sex marriage and public approval for it going over 50% nationally.

While much progress has been made on the representation of the LGBT community in advertising, it's easy to forget that it wasn't too long ago when a gay character was all but invisible in national ads -- or if featured, presented to be mocked or laughed at. We've come a long way, indeed.

To commemorate Pride Week (several cities have parades planned for this weekend), Minyanville has compiled a list of 10 of the most groundbreaking LGBT-themed advertisements. Here's hoping that such ads will no longer been considered as "controversial" in the not-too-distant future.


Back in 1994, one year after the US Military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule was put in place, Swedish home furnishing giant Ikea ran the first-ever US TV commercial to feature a gay couple as part of a campaign that featured non-traditional families. "The purpose is to present a variety of our customer base, to send the message that everyone is welcome at IKEA," said then-advertising manager for IKEA US East, William R. Agee.

In the commercial, two men talk about their differing tastes while choosing a dining table, and one explicitly says, "We've been together for about three years," just in case someone watching might think these were just two very close-knit best friends.

How controversial was the ad? The ad only ran a grand total of one time in New York and Washington, DC (and after 9.30 p.m., to boot) before Ikea pulled it after receiving bomb threats at a store from conservatives.

Watch the ad here.

Virgin Cola

Think Virgin brand, and the qualities that come to mind are fun, hip, and unconventional. It's no surprise that when Richard Branson sought to launch Virgin Cola, his attempt at challenging the Coke (KO)-Pepsi (PEP) hegemony, he went for something attention-grabbing: a gay-themed ad that features, for the first time on American television, a same-sex kiss.

In the ad, which was launched in the US in 1998, two middle-aged men get married at a beach ceremony officiated by a woman from the Metropolitan Community Churches. After she pronounces them as married, the two men, who were a real-life couple, kiss.

The ad was shown only in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, where Virgin Cola was introduced. Of course, those are some of the more progressive cities in the US. Despite that, at least one TV station in each city refused to run the ad, noted The Commercial Closet.

See the ad here.

Samuel Adams Beer (SAM)

If gays and lesbians are underrepresented in the media, then the transgender community must feel like it is practically invisible. If the latter is portrayed in ads, it's typically in the form of a male-to-female transgender person who's presented in a sexy and provocative manner, only for it to be revealed that she's (GASP!) a he!

This 2001 Samuel Adams beer commercial doesn't stray from this convention, but what's groundbreaking about it is that the transgender person featured was actually cast in a (relatively) positive light.

Here's how The Commercial Closet describes the commercial:
A gorgeous woman laying in bed with a stud says, "Wait! Before this goes any further, there's something I have to tell you." She hands him a beer and announces, "I'm a transsexual," as her hand mocks a scissors cut.

The man laughs in disbelief and she says, "Serious," as she points at her Adam's apple. His smile falls as he says, "I gotta go." But then he takes a swig of his beer and exclaims, "Wow! That tastes great!" It makes him forget everything and he asks, "What was I saying?" She replies, "You were about to nibble on my lip." He smiles and dives back into bed.

The director of the commercial, C.J. Waldman, told The Commercial Closet that the ad was "meant to be irreverent, by making fun of the macho guy and his homophobia."

Watch the ad here.

John Hancock Financial (MFC)

Two women standing in line at airport customs are busying themselves with adoption papers and diaper bags as they coo over a sleeping Asian baby, telling her, "This is your new home." One of the women says to her partner, "Can you believe this? We're a family."
The tagline then appears: "Insurance for the unexpected. Investments for the opportunities."

"You'll make a great mom," one woman whispers to her partner as the ad comes to an end.

"So will you," the other replies.

This was John Hancock Financial's 2000 commercial hawking its line of mutual funds, annuities, life insurance, and long-term care insurance. It was the first commercial to deal with same-sex adoption rights and same-sex families.

The firm's desire to court the pink dollar, however, apparently was not stronger than its fear of offending conservatives: When the ad ran during the 2000 Olympics on NBC, two key lines were cut – "We're a family" and "You'll make a great mom" – making the relationship between the two women more ambiguous.

Click here for a look.


How's this for equality – two versions of the same ad, where in one, the boy gets the girl, and in the other, the boy gets the boy.

This was the concept for Levi's 2007 pair of commercials for its line of 501 jeans, in which the gay version of the ad was shown on LOGO, while the straight one ran on major networks.

To be clear, the idea for the pair of ads arose out of pragmatic concerns. Here's what then-Levi's Marketing VP Robert Cameron told Ad Age:

At first it made us parse the thought of, what does that say? We're not spending as much money as we ought to do a dedicated commercial for the gay market. But [then] we thought, if we're going to do an ad for them, they deserve the same production values. ... So doing the same commercial with different endings seemed to us to be a message about absolute equality.

Indeed, what was fresh about this Levi's commercial was that it demonstrates that corporations who typically do not allocate much money to marketing for the LGBT audience can now do so more cost-efficiently by simply piggy-backing on a heterosexual concept.

Watch both commercials here.


Defining the term "going viral" was this 2010 McDonald's (MCD) commercial from France. In the 48-second spot, a teenage boy is speaking to his boyfriend on his cellphone at a McDonald's while his father is ordering food. He quickly ends the conversation when his dad returns.

The father then comments on how much his son looks like himself when he was young, saying that he was quite a ladies' man.
He then tells his son, "Too bad your class is all boys. You could get all the girls."

The boy smiles knowingly to himself as the McDonald's tagline "come as you are" pops up on screen.

This was the first time that a global giant like McDonald's had produced a gay-themed mainstream ad, and it quickly went viral online, with one unofficial video of the ad having amassed nearly 4.5 million views on YouTube.

A McDonald's spokesperson said the ad was meant to showcase the diversity of the fast food chain's customers in France. Mediaite speculated that "the company may be experimenting to see reactions before similar campaigns in other (perhaps somewhat riskier) countries." Might we expect a gay-themed McDonald's commercial here in the US sometime soon?

Click to see the ad.

Rejected ManCrunch ad for the Super Bowl

In 2010, gay dating site ManCrunch had created a special Super Bowl-themed spot to be broadcast during the annual football extravaganza. The ad features two men watching the Super Bowl on a couch. Their hands touch by accident as they both reach for the same bowl of chips, which triggers a hot-and-heavy make-out session.

Apparently, something in the ad (we're guessing it's the making out part) was unacceptable to broadcaster CBS (CBS), which rejected the ad, saying to CNN, ""After reviewing the ad, which is entirely commercial in nature, our standards and practices department decided not to accept this particular spot."

Some media commentators believed that ManCrunch was only trying to generate free publicity, knowing that CBS would reject the ad since it was unlikely the small business could afford the $3 million fee for each 30-second spot.

ManCrunch spokesperson Elissa Buchter refuted the claim that it was unable to afford the spot, telling the Huffington Post, "We're 100% serious. We have the money to pay for it. If the ad showed a man and woman kissing it would have been accepted. You see ads for erectile dysfunction morning, noon, and night. It's discriminatory that they wont show this....They should call our bluff."

Was ManCrunch serious about its intention? We're not sure, but given that the Super Bowl is the last bastion of machismo, we're guessing it'll be awhile before we'll ever see a gay-themed ad like that on the broadcast.

See it here.

Budweiser (BUD)

Are there more celebrated heteronormative institutions than beer drinking and the military? Surely Budweiser had water cooler buzz in mind when it launched a 2011 military-themed ad that may or may not have featured gay soldiers.

Here's how AfterElton, a site that focuses on the media portrayal of gay men, described the ambiguity of the commercial:

So the first person our soldier calls is this other guy. Let's call him PB for Potential Boyfriend. Clearly the solider isn't married or in a serious relationship with the girl we later see him hugging. Otherwise he surely would've called her first. So the possibilities are that either PB is a brother, best friend or ... a boyfriend. Hmm, would a soldier coming home really call his best friend or his brother before his parents?

If PB is his brother, the brother clearly doesn't live at home as we see the solider also call his parents, while PB is driving away from his house to start getting the party ready. And PB sure seems to be much of the focus of the commercial as he prepares for the party. And then who is the first person to greet and hug our soldier? It's PB, of course. And it's a fairly intense hug.

Does AfterElton's interpretation of the spot sound logical? Perhaps. However, one thing's for sure: The ad airing in the aftermath of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal emphasizes that change has come and is here to stay.

Watch and decide for yourself.

JC Penney

If there's a company that's going all in on the whole gay rights movement, surely JC Penney is it. Earlier in the year, the Plano, Texas-based company signed openly gay Ellen DeGeneres to be its spokesperson, incurring the wrath of the anti-gay group, One Million Moms. Then, in May, JC Penney further incensed the group with the release of its new catalog, which features a happy lesbian couple with their adolescent girl.

LGBT-themed advertising is much more commonplace these days, but lesbians are still very much underrepresented in national LGBT-themed advertising, JC Penney's portrayal of an All-American lesbian family was a significant milestone. It's a statement that says: Yes, featuring lesbians can also help sell your product.

Of course, JC Penney also spread the love to gay men, releasing a Father's Day ad in June showcasing a gay couple. Guess which organization was up in arms over it?

Brand USA Tourism

"We want to spread America's message of welcome around the world and invite travelers to experience the limitless possibilities the United States has to offer." That was what Brand USA CEO Jim Evans said in a statement announcing the release for this new TV commercial aimed at urging tourists to visit America.

Among the things highlighted in the spot are images of cities like New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Miami, and shots of beautiful beaches and forests. Actors of various ethnicities, representing the diverse cultural make-up of the US, also appear in the ad. Also included in the spot is a quick shot of a same-sex couple, one of whom rests his head on his partner.

Given that there is an infinite number of things that can be included into this one minute ad selling America, the fact that the state-sanctioned Brand USA chose to include an image of a gay couple in its "message of welcome" speaks volumes about its embrace of inclusiveness and of the LGBT community. The US is effectively saying, "Come visit us because we are gay-friendly!" Certainly, we can't imagine such an ad having been produced 20, or even 10 years ago.

See how America is promoted here.

(See also: Pride at Work: Best Companies for Gay Rights in Canada and the US and Money and Same-Sex Couples: 5 Tips You Can't Afford to Ignore.)

Twitter: @sterlingwong
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