Advertising Educational Foundation

[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

Fig. 1. Miller Lite Shows Its Gay Persona in This Ad (2010)
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Fig. 1.

Miller Lite Shows Its Gay Persona in This Ad (2010)1

The description of the “gay market” shows how definitions of sexuality can be applied strategically, depending on what marketers find expedient at a given time. For although marketers and journalists refer to “the gay market” and, more recently, “the GLBT market” to encompass all members of this “class” of non-heterosexual people, their interest and investment are mainly focused on affluent gay men. There is some interest in lesbians, but mostly marketers hope that lesbians will interpret ads to gay men as appealing to them as well. Marketers occasionally acknowledge bisexuals and transgender people in their considerations of the gay market, but most believe these groups to be too small to warrant marketing attention.2 inline graphic inline graphic

Read a fuller account of the evolution of media directed to gay readers.

1. Introduction

Since the early 1990s, national marketers and advertisers have recognized a new specialized market segment: gay consumers.3 Prior to this, advertising targeted to gay men was primarily in local gay-oriented newsletters and newspapers and national circulation gay erotica. Personal classifieds and advertisements placed by local gay-owned businesses were the primary sources of advertising income for the newsletters and newspapers.4 By contrast, advertising in the erotica was quite limited and did not include national advertisers of recognized brands of consumer goods and services. In just a couple of decades, all this has changed to the point where media directed to gay men have expanded considerably and are supported in large part by the paid advertising of well known brands like Budweiser, United Airlines, Nike, Ralph Lauren, and the like. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 2. By the Early 1990s, Several Magazines Carrying National Advertising Were Specifically Targeted to Gay Readers
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Fig. 2.

By the Early 1990s, Several Magazines Carrying National Advertising Were Specifically Targeted to Gay Readers5

Gay consumers now constitute what marketers refer to as a niche market, that is, a special market segment with its own characteristic profile that is large enough in size and affluent enough to warrant special consideration. In addition to gay consumers, other important niche markets include African Americans and Latinos—both of which also constitute sizeable and affluent sets of consumers that garner the attention of marketers. inline graphic inline graphic

Marketing research firms in the late 1980s and early 1990s conducted surveys that attempted to assess the income of gay consumers. Their research established the notion that gay consumers are typically better educated, earn higher incomes, and are more likely to occupy professional positions than their straight counterparts. Along with these findings came the idea that gay households typically have two incomes and no additional dependents. Although difficult to determine actual numbers of gays in the population, many marketers simply followed the one-to-ten number proposed by Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s6 in estimating the size of the gay population. inline graphic inline graphic

Later studies have challenged the paradigm of gay consumers as affluent and plentiful by showing that the earlier research was biased in the way the data were collected.7 John Edward Campbell, assessing the matter, writes:

Once major marketing companies began examining the gay niche market more systematically, however, it became clear that not all gays and lesbians earned more than their heterosexual counterparts. For these firms, it became increasingly important to identify and segment affluent gays (notably white, well-educated, professional gay men) from less economically desirable segments of the gay community (including women, working-class gay men, and gays and lesbians of color).8 inline graphic inline graphic

The latest trends in marketing recognize the diversity that exists in the population. Primary attention by advertising is, of course, devoted to the more affluent. Additionally, newer technologies based on the Internet allow advertisers to speak less to collectivities and more individually to consumers, taking multiple factors (such as ethnicity, gender, sexuality, income, education, personal interests, etc.) into consideration when doing so. inline graphic inline graphic

2. Recognition of the Gay Consumer—Politics or Business?

Changes in attitudes and social policies among advertisers and within the advertising industry are not the primary motivation for changes in the sensitivity of advertising toward various gays and other minorities. The record shows that the changes are, in the words of Professor Katherine Sender, a matter of “business, not politics.” 9 From the perspective of corporate America, it simply makes good business sense to pay greater attention to people as their spending power rises. inline graphic inline graphic

The history of advertising contains many examples of marketers turning attention to previously ignored segments of the population. For example, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s drastically altered the status of African Americans, allowing them greater access to educational and job opportunities and thus providing a general rise in income. In turn, higher income and greater spending power attracted the attention of advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

Professor Sender further argues that although marketers assumed the preexistence of such groups, the reality is that their very existence was helped along by the attention devoted by marketers to them. Personal identities and imagined communities 10 of all sorts—e.g., African American, Latino, LGBT—are not entities that marketers simply stop ignoring and turn their attention to. Rather the formation and emergence of these personal identities and collective communities resulted from a variety of factors: political activism, the attention paid to them by various media, and, not least of all, marketers and advertisers identifying, conceptualizing, and addressing them as such. inline graphic inline graphic

3. A Brief History of the Emergence of the Gay Market

The gay market did not come into existence instantly but is rather the product of an historical process that included a variety of events and processes, many of which have marketing and/or advertising connections. The discussion that follows traces some of these key steps in the emergence of gay identities and the gay market. inline graphic inline graphic

The Stonewall Riots (1969)

Fig. 3. The Stonewall Riots Made Front Page News in 1969
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Fig. 3.

The Stonewall Riots Made Front Page News in 196911

Read more about the Stonewall Riots making the beginning of the LGBT movement in America

The event marking the emergence of gays in American public life is generally agreed to be the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Large numbers of gays mobilized to resist and protest a police raid on the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City on June 28, 1969. Prior to this, very few gay people were “out” and homosexuality itself was practiced discreetly and in private. The American Psychological Association even listed it as a mental disease, and the US Government refused to admit known homosexuals into the country or to allow them to become citizens. inline graphic inline graphic

Interestingly, advertising played an important role in overturning such attitudes and practices, not directly in association with the Stonewall Riots themselves, but nearly a decade later in another protest movement. What is now termed “the gay community” had no public face before Stonewall. inline graphic inline graphic

Anita Bryant and Florida Orange Juice (1977)

It was the Florida Orange Juice boycott of 1977 that genuinely coalesced the gay community and helped forge its identity as a national, politically self-conscious community. 12 The boycott came about as a result of a movement to repeal a non-discrimination law that had been enacted in 1977 by the Dade County (Florida) Commissioners. 13 Gospel singer, beauty queen, and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant spearheaded the movement for repeal. She had appeared in many commercials promoting orange juice from Florida. Bryant’s taglines, “It’s not just for breakfast anymore,” and, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine,” were known across America. inline graphic inline graphic

A Florida Orange Juice Ad Featuring Anita Bryant as Spokesperson
Video 1.

A Florida Orange Juice Ad Featuring Anita Bryant as Spokesperson14

The movement pitted Bryant and Bob Kunst, owner of 40 gay bathhouses around the country, against one another. Bryant argued that

the ordinance had granted special privileges to a group of immoral citizens and dismissed the notion that it had represented an extension of basic human and civil rights. Instead, she argued the ordinance had infringed on her civil rights—particularly as a concerned mother who feared homosexuals would either attempt to recruit or convert children to homosexuality or portray homosexuality as an acceptable and attractive alternate lifestyle.15 inline graphic inline graphic

Local, national, and international media picked up the story of the conflict. According to Kunst, Bryant’s outspoken criticism of gays “gave us every access to world media. We had over 50,000 news clippings. This is the turning point where gay became a household word.”16 inline graphic inline graphic

Although the Bryant affair ironically helped launch the gay rights movement in America, it was not without other liberal critics who worried about the suppression of Bryant’s right as an individual to work as well as to express her individual political views and about the possibility of blacklisting reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. inline graphic inline graphic

Nowadays orange juice is back on the gay table, Anita Bryant has all but disappeared, and gays are very much in evidence in American public and political life. The following brief video tells the story of Bryant’s rise and fall from fame and her effect on the gay movement. inline graphic inline graphic

This Video Recounts Anita Bryant’s Rise and Fall in American Public Life
Video 2.

This Video Recounts Anita Bryant’s Rise and Fall in American Public Life17

Benetton (1992)

The depiction of gay life took an unexpected and shocking twist in February 1992 when the Italian clothing company, Benetton, used the image of an AIDS victim on his deathbed in one of its advertisements. Benetton had already been using shock advertisements that employed provocative photographs featuring social and cultural themes instead of product shots. Pioneered in-house by Oliviero Toscani, such Benetton ads caused an enormous stir in both the advertising community and public responses. “But is it advertising?”—many asked. “How does an image of a priest kissing a nun, a black mother suckling a white baby, or a man holding a human thighbone sell clothing?” Benetton’s controversial response was that the company wanted to approach consumers as individuals and to develop a relationship with them on the basis of shared values that would eventually encompass the company’s product as a part of that shared world. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 4. Bill Kirby Comforts His Dying Son, David (1992)
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Fig. 4.

Bill Kirby Comforts His Dying Son, David (1992) 18

Americans typically have difficulty with ads that do not feature a product front and center, but the AIDS photograph took the issue to an entirely new level. Here is how Life magazine reported the story:

A nurse at Pater Noster House holds David Kirby’s hands not long before he died. While Therese Frare’s photograph of David’s family comforting him in the hour of his death earned accolades when published in LIFE, it became notorious two years later when Benetton used a colorized version of the photo in a provocative ad campaign. Individuals and groups ranging from Roman Catholics (who felt the picture mocked classical imagery of Mary cradling Christ after his crucifixion) to AIDS activists (furious at what they saw as corporate exploitation of death in order to sell T-shirts) voiced outrage.... inline graphic inline graphic

“On the day that David died,” Therese Frare told LIFE, “I happened to be visiting Peta [David’s partner]. It was in the morning and they came in to get Peta so he could be with David, and he took me with him. I stayed outside David’s room, minding my own business, when David’s mom, Kay, came out and said, ‘We’d like you to photograph people saying their final goodbyes to David.’ I went in, and just stood in the corner of that room, quiet, barely moving, and it all happened as I watched and photographed it. After that, I did realize that, yes, something truly incredible had unfolded, right in front of me.” inline graphic inline graphic

In another of Frare’s photos taken in the final moments of David Kirby’s life, Peta, David’s father, and David’s sister, Susan, say goodbye. “Early on,” Frare says of her time at Pater Noster House, “I asked David if he minded me taking pictures, and he said, ‘That’s fine, as long as it’s not for personal profit.’ To this day I don’t take any money for the picture. But David was an activist, and he wanted to get the word out there about how devastating AIDS was to families and communities. Honestly, I think he was a lot more in tune with how important the photos might become.” Frare pauses, and laughs. “At the time, I was like, ‘Yeah, who’s going to see these pictures, anyway?’“ Over the past 20 years, by some estimates, as many as 1 billion people have seen the Frare photograph that appeared in LIFE, in the Benetton ad, and in the hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and TV stories—from all over the world—focusing on the photo itself and the controversies that later surrounded it.19 inline graphic inline graphic

The effect of this single ad on the representation of gay life (and death) in advertising was enormous. It dared to show the devastating effects of AIDS on victims and their families at a time when the disease was stigmatized as a gay disease and the problems it caused went largely unexamined in pubic media. This controversial, in-your-face approach simply could not be ignored. If the ad itself were not enough to stir up public concern, the much more impactful publicity surrounding it surely did so. The David Kirby photograph was not easy to ignore nor were the tragic issues it depicted. inline graphic inline graphic

A fundamental gay issue of the time had entered public culture, and ironically it had been advertising—at least a certain kind of advertising—that had played a decisive role in its emergence. inline graphic inline graphic

IKEA (1994)

The Swedish company, IKEA, made headlines on Madison Avenue and in newspapers around the country when it aired the first openly gay commercial seen on American television. As a part of a pool of three commercials showing diverse types of families purchasing IKEA products, the commercial featured two men buying a dining table together. They specifically talk about how the dining table signifies commitment in their relationship, leaving little doubt that they are partners. inline graphic inline graphic

This Commercial Leaves Little Doubt that the Two Men Are Partners
Video 3.

This Commercial Leaves Little Doubt that the Two Men Are Partners20

Reactions were predictably diverse. Donny Deutsch, chief executive of the Deutsch advertising agency in New York that created the ad, said that such representations of diversity, including gay relationships, were overdue in terms of social reality but that the theretofore resistance was due to marketers’ fear of a backlash.21 Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative, Washington-based think tank, argued that ads like this that openly promote gay relationships offend mainstream America and will result in lost revenue.22 Although many gay men celebrated the ad as an acceptance of their lives, Jeff Yarbrough, editor-in-chief of the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine asked: “If the intent of the ad has been to garner media attention, well, it’s done a brilliant job of that. But I wonder, what are their real motives? What is IKEA’s corporate policy on gays?”23 inline graphic inline graphic

Abercrombie & Fitch (1997-Present)

Although the Abercrombie & Fitch name as a clothing retailer dates back to 1892, it was only in 1997 that the “new” A&F emerged as one of America’s most popular clothing brands. Abercrombie & Fitch focuses primarily on the 18- to 22- year-old demographic. Its advertising—print ads, billboards, in-store posters, and for a time at least, a cutting edge in-house magazine—has created one of the strongest brand images in America. The “Abercrombie look” defines what Women’s Wear Daily called neo-preppy, a look that has iconic status along with brands like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 5. What Exactly is Going On Here?
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Fig. 5.

What Exactly is Going On Here?24

A United States Court of Appeals25 decision provides an excellent description of the Abercrombie & Fitch brand image. Comparing A&F to competitor American Eagle,the court document stated:

Abercrombie uses grainy images of exceptionally fit and attractive young people in outdoor (often collegiate) settings, alone and in groups, wearing more or less A&F clothing in ways that convey their allegiance to the brand while also seemingly attempting to create a sexual mystique about the wearer.... Throughout the Quarterly,26 A&F makes extensive use of photographs depicting apparently college-aged people in often erotic or homoerotic poses or situations wearing clothes with A&F logos displayed more or less prominently. A&F works with noted fashion photographer Bruce Weber, whose style is well known in the industry and recognizable by even the uninitiated.27 inline graphic inline graphic

Abercrombie advertising is famous as well as infamous. Young people have flocked to the stores eager to acquire the attributes proffered by the brand. However, many parents and concerned citizens groups have complained of the image it promotes, its celebration of sex, its unconventionality with regard to eroticism—including group sex and homoeroticism—and its promotion of binge drinking among college—aged students. One outspoken, African American critic wrote a book entitled, Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch, alleging its racism and classism.28 inline graphic inline graphic

Beyond these strident criticisms, many young gay men celebrate A&F for what they consider its overt homosocial29 and homoerotic advertising images. Many see A&F as challenging the authority of traditional conventions and normalizing homosexuality. inline graphic inline graphic

Professor Tom Reichert, a prolific writer about sex and advertising, calls A&F advertising gay vague, meaning by this that the homosocial and homoerotic imagery is highly suggestive and may be easily interpreted as condoning gay lifestyles. However, it is not so specific as to be only interpretable as gay. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 6. Another Suggestive A&F Ad
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Fig. 6.

Another Suggestive A&F Ad30

A&F creative director Sam Shahid responded to Reichert’s claim this way:

It all depends on the eye of the beholder. What’s interesting about Abercrombie is that, culturally, we’re in a different time where more things happen and people are much more accepting. We’ve really crossed the line. With Abercrombie, it depends on how you look at the ad. Guys who are gay would say, “Oh my God, it’s fantastic. He’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful.” And straight guys would look at it say, “Oh, I want to look like that. If so, I might get a date.” And the girls say, “Oh, I wish my boyfriend looked like that.” So, it all depends on who’s looking at the ad. Each person sees it in a way that fits their own needs and desires. That’s what’s so genius about it.31 inline graphic inline graphic

What Shahid describes is, of course, every advertiser’s dream—namely, to be all things to all people. The advertising is successful not only because its strong imagery appeals to large numbers of young people but also because it can be “read” in such different ways. However, looked at from the perspective of a gay reader, it is an affirmation of a lifestyle that was suppressed until recently. inline graphic inline graphic

Coors (1977-Present)

The story of Coors beer and the gay community is a case study in the power of the politics of gay influence on American social life. Thirty years ago, rumors about discrimination within the Coors business and the Coors family’s championing of anti-gay causes spread throughout the gay community and politically liberal groups. As it was learning to do elsewhere, the gay community once again flexed its political muscle. inline graphic inline graphic

From the Castro in San Francisco and throughout the country, gay bars refused to stock Coors products and gay men refused to buy them. Coors became another flashpoint of gay politics and boycotting. Although the history of this protest is lengthy, suffice it to say the anti-gay reputation became firmly associated with the Coors brand. inline graphic inline graphic

Then, as suddenly as the boycott seemed to have begun, the Coors company did an about-face. It became gay friendly with changes in personnel policies (extending the same rights to domestic partners as to spouses), diversifying its workforce, and targeting some of its advertising directly to gay men. Although Coors’ troubles with the gay community have not been entirely overcome, this once homophobic and anti-gay brand now courts gay interests by sponsoring gay-themed events, publicizing its gay-friendly policies, and engaging gay men in its marketing communications. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 7. This Ad Appeared in Gay-Oriented Media, Not General Audience Publications
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Fig. 7.

This Ad Appeared in Gay-Oriented Media, Not General Audience Publications32

Fig. 8. Coors Appeals to Gay Men Through Parades and Sponsored Events
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Fig. 8.

Coors Appeals to Gay Men Through Parades and Sponsored Events33

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003–2007)

The reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was enormously popular between 2003 and 2007. It made openly gay men the fashion and lifestyle consultants to scores of straight men. The show was premised on stereotypes of gay men as especially knowledgeable in matters of fashion, style, personal grooming, interior design, and culture. In each episode, the team of five gay men reworked and revamped a straight man by transforming his wardrobe, redecorating his living space, and teaching him the ins and outs of entertaining and self-presentation. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 9. This Popular Reality TV Series Presented Gay Men as Authorities on Style and Culture
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Fig. 9.

This Popular Reality TV Series Presented Gay Men as Authorities on Style and Culture34

The show had its greatest following among straight people for whom it worked to normalize and accept gays as authorities in certain areas. However, many critics—both gay and straight—felt that the show only served to reinforce a limited and stereotypic view of gay men. Other critics saw the show as little more than a marketing device for particular brands. inline graphic inline graphic

The Ad Library of GLAAD (formerly, Commercial Closet) contains more than 4400 advertisements that, in one way or another, contain representations of gays in American and foreign advertising. It is a rich resource for further investigation of the ways gays have been depicted in advertising.

4. Negative Stereotypes, Homophobia, and Humor at the Expense of Gays

Although positive portrayals of gays in advertising are somewhat commonplace nowadays, there also appear from time to time advertising images of gays that play on negative stereotypes, the widespread homophobia in American culture, or make jokes at the expense of gays. The macho Super Bowl has been a venue over the years for such portrayals, as have other sporting events that typically celebrate heterosexuality and portray women almost exclusively as sex objects, and gays as the object of derision. inline graphic inline graphic

Two examples of stereotypic portrayals of gays are a Heineken commercial from 2000, and Centraal Beheer from 2010. In the Heineken commercial, two men are sitting on a couch watching a sports event. In typical American cultural style, there is quite a bit of sunlight between them. The problem occurs when they both reach for a Heineken and their bodies touch. They react instantly, moving even further apart on the couch. Their talk turns to the cheerleaders with one of them proclaiming that what the game needs is more cheerleaders. inline graphic inline graphic

This Heineken Commercial Reinscribes Homophobia
Video 4.

This Heineken Commercial Reinscribes Homophobia35

This commercial is homophobic in the extreme and makes any hint of male-male body contact a subject of derision. Many people found the commercial humorous, but it is humor at the expense of gay men who may in fact wish to sit closer together or even touch one another. This commercial goes a long way in reinforcing cultural norms of behavior for straight men, and at the same time reinscribes ideas about homophobia in American society. These men go so far as to proclaim their straightness in several ways: reacting negatively to intimacy with another man, moving further apart to signify their independence and lack of interest in other men (except in the spectacle of sports, of course), and in their proclamation of interest in women. inline graphic inline graphic

A second example of the negative portrayal of gays occurs in a Centraal Beheer (Dutch Insurance Company) ad set in the Garden of Eden. It turns out that Adam, whom Eve seems to fancy, is a gay, effeminate man. Although he appears in the eyes of Eve to be an ideal potential mate, his over-the-top mannerisms and lack of interest in women conform to the conventional stereotype that gays are somewhat less than ‘real’ men, and that their behavior is outside the range of stereotypical masculine behavior. The commercial is posted on YouTube site for “funny ads,” but the humor is clearly at the expense of gays. inline graphic inline graphic

Eve Finds Out that Adam is Gay in This Commercial
Video 5.

Eve Finds Out that Adam is Gay in This Commercial36

5. Metrosexuality

The term metrosexual emerged in the 1990s37 as a marketing concept referring to straight men who take on many of the attributes usually associated with women or gay men: concern about fashion, grooming, appearance, and so on. The American Heritage Dictionary now defines metrosexual as a heterosexual, usually urban male who pays much attention to his personal appearance and cultivates an upscale lifestyle. inline graphic inline graphic

Metrosexuality as a phenomenon provided opportunities for marketing and advertising to offer a greater range of products to straight men who had either ignored or turned away from them in the past. For example, the male body wash phenomenon (e.g., brands like Old Spice, Axe, and Dove for Men) has repositioned and marketed a product to men that was previously targeted only to women. inline graphic inline graphic

Metrosexualty in the marketplace has also provided the occasion for the reassertion of traditional male behaviors and values—in other words, a backlash against the feminization and gayification of straight men. The Canadian Club commercial proudly claims, “Your dad was not a metrosexual.” inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 10. Your Dad Was Not a Metrosexual
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Fig. 10.

Your Dad Was Not a Metrosexual38

6. Out Magazine Ads

Out magazine is a monthly gay and lesbian fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle magazine with a circulation of 115,000. Its editorial style is similar to Details, Esquire, and GQ. Out is printed on glossy paper, the optimal format for reproducing ads. inline graphic inline graphic

Noting the inauguration of the magazine in 1992, the quintessential mainstream newspaper USA Today reported that

The premier issue of Out magazines is on newsstands nationwide today. Its 104 glossy pages contain 20 pages of ads, including 18 pages from national advertisers such as Benetton, Absolut vodka, Opal Nera liqueur and Geffen records. That’s not especially noteworthy, until you consider that Out is a magazine for homosexuals. inline graphic inline graphic

An examination of a selection of ads from Out39 shows how gay individuals, gay lifestyles, and gay-friendly companies have been represented over the past two decades. These ads themselves represent a flexibility of attitudes and an acceptance of gay men and their relationships that had been largely closeted and publicly derided previously.

Here are some of the themes, issues, and techniques reflected in the ads: inline graphic inline graphic

Gay Partners in Relationships

Close, intimate relationships between male couples are depicted in many of the advertisements in Out. These images signal gay friendly companies and leave little doubt as to the nature of the relationship between the men. For example, an ad for Avis shows two smiling adult men who are in close body contact with one another. The copy explains that domestic partners are automatically included in rental contracts—a policy that extends the privileges enjoyed by opposite-sex married couples to gay domestic partners. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 11. This Avis Ad Talks About Rates for Domestic Partners (2003)
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Fig. 11.

This Avis Ad Talks About Rates for Domestic Partners (2003)40

Similarly, a Kodak ad shows two men in a memento photograph. This ad follows Kodak’s long-standing tradition of instructing consumers about what to take pictures of (e.g., birthdays, holidays, travel, graduation, weddings, and so on) as well as how these pictures should look. In this case, the ad instructs gay men to take lasting photographs of their enduring relationships. Its message is no different really from what Kodak would say to opposite-sex couples, but the ad does show the company’s recognition, open acceptance, and celebration of gay men in relationships. Only some companies are willing to go this far in courting gay consumers. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 12. The Closeness of the Two Men in This Kodak Ad Indicates Partnership (2008)
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Fig. 12.

The Closeness of the Two Men in This Kodak Ad Indicates Partnership (2008)41

Double-Produced Ads

Sometimes advertisements will be double-produced in order to appeal to niche as well as mainstream markets. What this means is that the talent in the ad will be switched in order to reflect the attributes of different markets. The Alizé ad illustrates this process. One version appeared in Out magazine while the other appeared in general readership media. The ads are virtually the same except for the switch from opposite-sex to same-sex couples. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 13. An Alizé Ad Placed in Out Magazine (1999)
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Fig. 13.

An Alizé Ad Placed in Out Magazine (1999)42

Fig. 14. Alternative Version of the Alizé Ad for Mainstream Media (1999)
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Fig. 14.

Alternative Version of the Alizé Ad for Mainstream Media (1999)43

“Gay Vague”

The meaning of an ad depends not only on what is in the ad but also on the context in which it appears. Moreover, different readers may interpret the same ad differently based on their own backgrounds and interests. For example, the copy of a Lufthansa ad talks about a 2-for-1 sale. The second ticket is for “the companion of your choice.” Although the copy is no more specific than that, the accompanying image shows two young men, easily interpretable as gay “companions.” With a change of images, the same copy could refer to an opposite-sex pair. Although vague in its specific reference to gay relationships, context helps resolve any ambiguity. Lufthansa, however, stops short of endorsing gay relationships and lifestyles in the overt manner in which Avis and Kodak do. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 15. A “Gay Vague” Ad for Lufthansa (2003)
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Fig. 15.

A “Gay Vague” Ad for Lufthansa (2003)44

What’s an Ad Like This Doing in Here?

At first glance the Lauder Pleasures ad may seem out of place—a man wearing a wedding band holding a young boy while both are relaxing in a hammock surrounded by a grassy lawn, a dog, and a white picket fence! However, who is to say that the same fantasies that may appeal to straight men may not also appeal to gay men? This romantic image of domesticity can also be predicated on a relationship of two men, their child, and a bucolic home life.45 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 16. The Good Life According to Pleasures (1997)
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Fig. 16.

The Good Life According to Pleasures (1997)46

In-Group Humor

Some ads use jokes, puns, and other forms of humor that might easily slip by non-members of the gay community. For example, Gay Travelocity uses campy language in an ad for gay friendly hotels. It encourages readers to “Try a new watersport.” The phrase can have a double meaning since watersports refers not only to sports done on lakes, rivers, and the ocean, but also to sensual or erotic play involving bodily fluids.47 The double entendre may be more easily understood by gay men because of their greater knowledge in general of “non-vanilla sexual practices.” inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 17. This Ad Uses In-Group Humor (2008)
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Fig. 17.

This Ad Uses In-Group Humor (2008)48

Alternatively, humor may be more transparent, as in the case of the Bud Light ads. “You’re out,” and, “closet case,” require no special knowledge to be understood. These ads, and others like them such as the Jose Cuervo ad (“Straight…or with a twist.”), appreciate important aspects of gay culture. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 18. Budweiser’s Gay Persona (1997)
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Fig. 18.

Budweiser’s Gay Persona (1997)49

Fig. 19. Another Budweiser Ad Speaking to Gays (2001)
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Fig. 19.

Another Budweiser Ad Speaking to Gays (2001)50

Fig. 20. A Play on Words That Recognizes an Aspect of Gay Life (2002)
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Fig. 20.

A Play on Words That Recognizes an Aspect of Gay Life (2002)51

Being All Things to All People

How is it possible for a brand like Budweiser to have a gay persona along with its traditional association with mainstream, heterosexual culture? First, the company has been gradually altering that image through a variety of humorous and youth-oriented ads that make no reference to gay culture, thereby broadening its appeal. Second, and much more important, is the fact that the gay-specific ads are placed in media outlets that are primarily viewed by gay men—as, for example, Out and other gay press magazines. Thus, straight, conservative men who associate Budweiser with their form of masculinity are unlikely to encounter, and therefore object to, Bud Light’s gay persona in such restricted circulation contexts. Thus, Budweiser, with impunity, may court both markets. inline graphic inline graphic

The Male Body on Display

Although it was somewhat taboo in the not-so-distant past to focus on scantily clothed male bodies in advertising,52 it is now commonplace to see nearly naked or even naked men in fashion advertising and certain other venues. Out has an especially large number of such ads for underwear, bathing suits, jeans, and men’s designer labels—thereby confirming to some degree the stereotype of gay men as highly fashion conscious. inline graphic inline graphic

The brands depicted in these ads are shown on models that in turn depict idealized male bodies, most of which are young, toned, hairless, athletic, and classically handsome. Just as the models in women’s fashion advertising are unlike the majority of women in real life, there is much more variation among gay men’s bodies than the images alone would suggest. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 21. Many Ads Idealize This Body Type (2010)
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Fig. 21.

Many Ads Idealize This Body Type (2010)53

Fig. 22. Many Ads Idealize This Body Type (2008)
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Fig. 22.

Many Ads Idealize This Body Type (2008)54

Some gay men reject this idealized image and prefer instead other body types. An example of this is what is referred to as bears, that is, fuller-bodied, often stocky, and typically hirsute men. These men are very hard to find in ads in Out, but appear rather in specialized magazines and other media targeted specifically to this segment of the gay population. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 23. A Bear’s Life Caters to a Specialized Segment of the Gay Population (2010)
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Fig. 23.

A Bear’s Life Caters to a Specialized Segment of the Gay Population (2010)55

Diversity in body types and preferences is the subject of a Vegas ad. By not limiting itself to just one type of gay male body but recognizing the varieties, Las Vegas is inviting all types of gay men to visit the “anything goes” destination. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 24. This Ad Recognizes the Diversity of Men’s Bodies (2009)
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Fig. 24.

This Ad Recognizes the Diversity of Men’s Bodies (2009)56

Alternatively, a Prada ad presents yet another variant among gay men—the androgynous, somewhat effeminate male—and a Kahlúa ad shows a shirtless black male body. Taken together, the ads within the pages of Out do show a certain degree of diversity of gay male bodies. Nonetheless, it is the young, slender, toned, athletic Caucasian male who is most prevalent. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 25. Androgynous Male Bodies Appear in This Prada Ad (2001)
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Fig. 25.

Androgynous Male Bodies Appear in This Prada Ad (2001)57

Fig. 26. Some Ads Feature Non-White Male Bodies (2000)
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Fig. 26.

Some Ads Feature Non-White Male Bodies (2000)58

Specialized Products Targeted to Gay Consumers

Certain ads offer products that are specifically targeted to gay consumers. For example, Atlantis Events proposes an all-gay cruise to the readers of Out. This is an example of marketing a product aimed specifically at affluent gay consumers—those who have the leisure to travel and the money to afford it. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 27. This Ad Plays on the Double Meaning of Cruise (2003)
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Fig. 27.

This Ad Plays on the Double Meaning of Cruise (2003)59

A Variety of Relationships

Depictions of a variety of male-male relationships occur in the ads in Out. In addition to those men who seem clearly to be established, youthful, same-sex partners, there are other relationships that are labeled or easily interpretable as father/son, “boyfriends,” lovers, cross-generational, senior citizens, and so on. This is a further reflection within the Out ads of diversity within the gay community. Even if there is a predominant, seemingly idealized type of relationship, there is certainly room for other types of relationships as well. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 28. Older Men Sometimes Appear in the Ads (2010)
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Fig. 28.

Older Men Sometimes Appear in the Ads (2010)60

Fig. 29. These Men Might Be Either Father and Son or Partners (1997)
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Fig. 29.

These Men Might Be Either Father and Son or Partners (1997)61

Ethnic and Racial Diversity

The depiction of diversity in these ads does not make much of a foray into ethnic and racial variation. The ads included in this discussion have shown some interracial couples and at least one non-white adult-child relationship. However, this is not a big part of the panorama of advertising images. This, in turn, reflects the conflation of gender, race, class, age, and sexuality, producing in this instance the idea of the ideal gay customer as young, white, affluent and male. inline graphic inline graphic

Performing Gender

The social theorist Judith Butler has argued that all of us—men, women, and intermediate—are always performing gender. It is all a guise, an act. Some of us give better, more convincing performances than others. However, nowhere is the act of performance so clear as when biological males present themselves as women via drag. In these instances, we are aware that we are witnessing a performance and we openly judge its quality and verisimilitude. inline graphic inline graphic

Perhaps it is because they must necessarily live in a predominantly heterosexual world, where gender performances of men performing masculinity and women performing femininity largely go unnoticed, that many gay men, who must necessarily be more conscious of how they comport and present themselves, appreciate drag. A few ads in Out (RuPaul for Baileys and Boy George for Viva Glam) play with gender performance. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 30. The Famous Drag Queen RuPaul Appears in This Ad (1995)
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Fig. 30.

The Famous Drag Queen RuPaul Appears in This Ad (1995)62

AIDS Medicines

Several different medicines to treat HIV and AIDS appear in Out. These ads tend to celebrate life and discuss ways of living with and through the disease. The prevalence of such medicines is higher in Out than in many magazines, reflecting of course the prevalence of the disease among some members of the gay community. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 31. An Ad for HIV/AIDS Medications (2001)
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Fig. 31.

An Ad for HIV/AIDS Medications (2001)63

7. Toward More Positive Representations of Gay Lifestyles

The Commercial Closet website (now incorporated into the GLAAD Advertising Media Program) established a repository of American and international advertisements that, in one way or another, make reference to GLBT individuals and lifestyles. The site continues to give a score to each ad that refers to the degree of positivity or negativity in its representation. inline graphic inline graphic

In addition, the site also contains a discussion of best practices regarding the representation of GLBT themes in advertising.64 Advertising professionals participated in the development of these guidelines and many are regularly practiced today by American ad agencies. Here are some of the suggestions: inline graphic inline graphic

  • • Do consider integrating GLBT people in general ad campaigns using tested business rationales such as showing diversity and welcoming all consumers. The simple power of inclusion works for many audiences.

  • • Do create GLBT-inclusive campaigns for both GLBT-media and general media whenever possible that are respectful to all.

  • • Do recognize that GLBT people come from all races, ages, ethnicities, nationalities, incomes, political and religious affiliations, professions, physical abilities, and gender expressions, and whenever possible, incorporate such diversity into their representations. One size does not fit all.

  • • Do consider putting a twist on the old clichés of GLBT stereotypes, homophobia, and transphobia.

  • • Don’t use GLBT stereotypes, themes, or people, as a device to elicit shock, humor, or titillation.

  • • Don’t use horrified or violent revulsion to references of homosexuality or transgender people.

  • • Don’t label or degrade gay men or lesbians as sexual predators.

  • • Don’t use sexuality in a degrading way to characterize same-sex affection and intimacy—or associate sexual practices with gays and lesbians differently than with heterosexuals.

  • • Don’t characterize transgender people as deceptive, scary, or freakish. inline graphic inline graphic

8. Conclusion

Niche markets of all sorts have been around for a long time, as advertisers and their agents have tried to address particular groups of people as potential consumers. Gay men are one of the most recent to be recognized and addressed directly because they—as a segment of the American population—are recognized as having spending power sufficiently large enough to warrant market attention. And because their lifestyles tend to be somewhat different from what might be termed “mainstream” culture, sensitive advertisers also attempt to represent gay interests in ads directed to gay men. Recent trends suggest a gradual movement of gay representations into more everyday representations as has already occurred in television programming and Hollywood films. inline graphic inline graphic

William M. O’Barr

William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author and co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language, and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of, which will consist of more than 25 units published as supplements to A&SR.


1. “Gay Advertisement #19: Miller Lite,” Openly Gay Marketing: A Gay-Focused Marketing and Advertising Blog, September 28, 2010,

2. Katherine Sender, Business, Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 10–11.

3. Sender, Business, Not Politics, 1.

4. John Edward Campbell, “The Evolution of the Gay Market: Constructing the Dream Consumer” in William M. O’Barr, “Multiculturalism in the Marketplace,” Advertising & Society Review 7.4 (2006).

5. “Coming CORRECT in Genre Magazine,” Jack Mackenroth: Memoirs of a Gaysha Blog, March 21, 2009,

6. Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1948).

7. The primary sources of these early data were readers of gay publications and persons who volunteered at gay pride parades to participate in surveys. In Campbell, “Evolution of the Gay Market.”

8. Campbell.

9. Sender, Business, Not Politics

10. The term “imagined community” was coined by Benedict Anderson in reference to nations. However, it has since been used extensively to refer to all sorts of communities that are not face-to-face, but rather exist in the minds of those who believe themselves to be a part of one. See “Benedict Anderson,”

11. This photograph appeared in the front page of The New York Daily News on Sunday, June 29, 1969. “Stonewall riots,” Wikipedia,

12. Sender, Business, Not Politics, 5.

13. The city of Miami is located in Dade County.

14. “Florida Orange Bird Commercial,” YouTube,

15. Julio Capó, Jr. “Reinterpreting the Anita Bryant Story: How Massive Resistance Politicized the Gay Rights Movement in the United States,” Making Waves 7 (2009): 5.

16. “The Downfall of Anita Bryant,” YouTube,

17. “The Downfall of Anita Bryant,” YouTube,

18. From the author’s collection.

19. “The Photo That Brought AIDS Home,” Life, July 21, 2010.

20. IKEA Ad, “Dining Room Table,” GLAAD Advertising Media Program,

21. Bruce Horovitz, “TV Commercial Featuring Gay Couple Creates a Madison Avenue Uproar,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1994,

22. Horovitz, “Gay Couple Creates Madison Avenue Uproar.”

23. Ibid.

24. “A+F Back2school and this is which frat?” Orange Mercury Blog, August 30, 2008,

25. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc., 280 F.3d 619 (6th Cir. 2002).

26. The Quarterly is the name of the A&F in-house periodical published from 1997–2003, and sporadically afterwards.

27. “A&F Quarterly,” Wikipedia,

28. Dwight A. McBride, Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality (New York: NYU Press, 2005).

29. Homosociality is the situation of men being in close or intimate relationship with other men and does not imply either homosexuality or heterosexuality, whereas homoerotic refers to erotic imagery that depicts same-sex people in a sexualized manner.

30. “Abercrombie & Fitch,” TheTheologiansCafe Blog, February 3, 2008,

31. Tom Reichert, “Does Sex in Advertising Work?” Advertising & Society Review 8.2, (2008).

32. “Coors’ New Marketing Initiative,” Martinis, Persistence, and A Smile Blog, June 8, 2006,

33. “2011 Gay Pride Parade,” dharder9475’s photostream, Flickr,

34. “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy TV Show - Yahoo! TV,”

35. Heineken Ad, “Male Bonding Incident,” GLAAD Advertising Media Program,

36. “Banned Commercial_ Adam and Eve - The Gay Version [HQ],” YouTube,

37. The first recorded use of the term metrosexual was by writer Mark Simpson of The Independent (London) in 1994.

38. “Damn Right Your Father Drank It,” Fight.Boredom Blog, June 13, 2008,

39. The ads discussed in this section were drawn from the February, June, and November issues of Out (1992–2010).

40. Out, June 2003.

41. Out, November 2008.

42. Out, November 1999.

43. From the author’s collection.

44. Out, November, 2003.

45. The interpretation of ads invariably follows a simple rule, namely, that the larger narrative surrounding an image must tell a positive and socially acceptable story about the place of the brand in consumers’ lives. Thus, although it might be possible to interpret the relationship between the man and the boy, in a more insidious manner, this “rule” about interpreting ads makes this both inappropriate and improbable.

46. Out, November 1997.

48. Out, July 2008.

49. Out, November 1997.

50. Out, February 2001.

51. Out, June 2002.

52. Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010) DVD.

53. Out, June–July 2010.

54. Out, June–July 2008.

55. “A Bear’s Life Magazine, Spring 2010,” Coverstand,

56. Out, June–July 2009.

57. Out, November 2001.

58. Out, February 2000.

59. Out, February 2003.

60. Out, June–July 2010.

61. Out, June 1997.

62. Out, November 1995.

63. Out, June 2001.

64. The full list is available at “Commercial Closet Association Best Practices,” revised March 2008, GLAAD Advertising Media Program,