William Mazzarella (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago) interviews Michael Wilke (journalist-activist and proprietor of www.commercialcloset.org) about gay themes in contemporary consumer goods advertising. The conversation covers the following main topics: 1) Commercial Closet’s mission and aims; 2) the politics of gay stereotyping in advertising and other media; 3) the rise of gay-friendly media formats; 4) the progressive potential of advertising as compared with other kinds of media; 5) lesbians and gays in the business world, and 6) the evolution and future of Wilke’s project. In addition, the interview considers—and includes links to—several particularly notable advertisements from Wilke’s collection.
Although A&SR usually publishes only commercials and print ads which we have digitized and placed on our own site, we have in this instance followed Michael Wilke's desire for readers to link directly to www.commericalcloset.org. The rationale for our usual procedure lies in wishing to avoid "dead sites" in the future, thereby altering the completeness of the articles we publish. I believe that Wilke's site is sufficiently important to expect that it will continue indefinitely or will be incorporated archivally elsewhere. However, sufficient information is contained in the discussion here to locate the specific commericals mentioned in the event that the site should discontinue.
Since late 1996, journalist-activist Michael Wilke has been on a singular mission: to educate the public, and in particular the mainstream business world, about gay content and representations in consumer goods advertising. Since January 2001, a great part of this work has been carried out through his website, www.commercialcloset.org, a path breaking, compelling assemblage that intersperses almost 1000 gay-themed ads with Wilke’s own topical columns. But Wilke is also a road warrior. These days he is giving upward of 25 video’ assisted lectures a year at universities, corporate conventions and gay events.
I met Wilke twice – once in April 2002, when he was presenting his video lecture to a riotous crowd at a conference for lesbian and gay businesspeople in Chicago, and once, in a more leisurely setting a couple of months later, in my office at the University of Chicago. Having recently completed a book on the cultural politics of advertising production in India, I was especially curious to find out Wilke’s thoughts on stereotyping, globalization, and the potential political costs of commercial co-optation. As the text that follows shows, our conversations yielded a rich array of examples and particulars. And yet our encounters were also characterized by a persistent tension: between an activist’s necessary optimism and a critical theorist’s habitual pessimism about the liberatory potential of the commercial media. We enter the conversation as Wilke is explaining the overall significance of his work with Commercial Closet.
[Editor’s Note: MAZ will be used to refer to William Mazzarella, and WIL to refer to Michael Wilke.]
Something that I’d like to address is the idea of getting the mainstream business world and beyond to pay attention and to care about this. This is really the goal of my project. Because while I enjoy preaching to the choir, as it were, and educating the gay community, the more important audience—from the point of view of my project—is marketers and agencies themselves.
The challenge in this is multifold. Part of it is that companies—even if they’ve not yet opposed anything that I’ve posted on the web site or that I’ve presented informationally—remain very uncertain about this subject and about how I’m positioning it. There’s a certain level of fear of upsetting the gay community and our allies, as it were. As much as there is a fear of provoking the right wing as well. Up until the last few years, not provoking the right wing was the stronger of the two and now I think we’ve reached a balance. But companies aren’t very often yet at a point of comfort to actively want to represent the gay community as...