Sexuality, Race, and Ethnicity in Advertising
[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]
This unit focuses primarily on the representation of sexuality in advertising imagery. However, many scholars consider that speaking of sexuality without also taking into consideration race and ethnicity, with which it is deeply intertwined, is misguided. Thus, this unit looks at sexuality as well as race and ethnicity in advertising.
Read about Representations of Masculinity and Femininity elsewhere in ADText.
Advertising imagery has usually depicted sexuality as heteronormative.2 Over the last couple of decades, gays and eventually lesbians have crept into it.3 It is a fair generalization to say that advertising imagery, in nearly every case, tends to follow and mimic social and cultural changes rather than to initiate them.4 Depictions of alternative sexualities in advertising thus began only after LGBT people came out in American society, and media programming, most notably TV sitcoms, included first gay and later lesbian characters.5 If all this were slow to happen, the inclusion of non-white, non-Anglo LGBT characters and imagery began even more recently and remains quite limited today.
2. Clarification of Terms: Gender and Sexuality
The terms gender and sex are used in somewhat confusing ways in everyday language. Prior to the feminist movement of the 1970s and thereabouts, the usual way of asking whether a person is male or female was simply: What is your sex? Nowadays it is at least as common, if not more so, to ask: What is your gender? American political correctness has tended to prefer gender to sex, although there remains considerable ambiguity and inconsistency in the use of the terms. For example, the application forms pictured below follow different usages.
Read about the difference between sexuality and gender.
In general, scholars have tended to be much more precise in their use of these and related terms, such as sexuality. This precision was occasioned by the rise of gender studies where certain issues needed consistent terms of reference.
Accepted scholarly uses are:
- sex refers to the biologically-based differences in humans (male versus female9)
- gender refers to the socially-defined differences between men and women (masculine versus feminine10)
- sexuality, a term appearing more recently, refers to the sexual preferences of individuals for partners of the same or opposite sex (hence, homosexual, heterosexual, lesbian, gay, straight, bisexual, etc.)
Heteronormativity is a term used by social theorists in order to discuss the way in which gender and sexuality are separated into hierarchically organized categories.
Throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, advertising simply assumed that everyone was heterosexual. This unquestioned assumption applied to images and copy in ads as well as the audience to which ads were directed.
Ads, like the larger society, thought of a woman's place as in the home, a man's place at work, and that home consisted of a happily married (male/female) couple who would eventually have children and live happily ever after.
Note that this gallery of images depicting heteronormativity also depicts images of race/ethnicity and social class. Indeed, along with advertising's treatment of heterosexuality as normal, ads have most often featured white people as generic and a certain degree of affluence as the usual.
Beginning in the late 1970s advertising imagery slowly began to include some non-white heterosexual couples in ads for a variety of brands. This has increased greatly in recent years as advertising has attempted to reflect the multicultural fabric of American society.
Here, for example, are two ads from 2011 that depict travel destinations. On page 133 of the March issue of Good Housekeeping, the couple in the Idaho ad is white. On the very next page of this same issue the couple in the Virginia ad is African-American.
However, it remains a fair generalization to say that throughout most of the years from the start of modern American advertising in the 1870s to the present, advertising has depicted white, upper-middle-class, heterosexual people as the standard.
4. Ads Depicting LGBT Individuals
The appearance of gays and lesbians in mainstream advertising only occurred after they become visible on TV and in other public media. One of the signal events was Ellen DeGeneres' outing herself on the sitcom Ellen in 1997. Thereafter followed Will and Grace (1998-2006), Queer as Folk (2000-2005), and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007). It was not long before including gay characters became the vogue. It took a while before the explicit portrayals of non-straight romantic relationships (for example, Brokeback Mountain ), and other non-comedic portrayals of those relationships, occurred on TV and in movies.
Even today the number of such portrayals remains small, but the point is that it does occur. Originally, these gay and lesbian characters were exclusively white Anglos. Six Feet Under (2001-2005) expanded that range with an interracial gay couple. Advertising imagery followed along, but at a cautious pace. For example, an Ikea ad (1994) was one of the first to feature a story line around a (white) gay couple. This is not to say that there have not been other portrayals of LGBT people in advertising before, but they are typically in a derisive context.
There is an important exception to all this. In magazines and media programming specifically targeted to gays and lesbians (for example, Out, Genre, and Logo TV), these portrayals are much more overt. Also some major advertisers such as Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing Company, and Coors exhibit what might be called "a gay persona" in such media. For example, Bud Light runs ads in Out that make explicit reference to gay men and their relationships. The brand can do this with impunity because the readership is almost entirely limited to gay people. Additionally, there is the phenomenon of "gay vague" ads that depict imagery that, given the context in which it is placed, is easily interpreted as referencing LGBT people.
5. Race and Ethnicity in Out Magazine
The remainder of this section examines a selection of ads from Out magazine.31 Each of these ads is an example of a conscious effort on the part of the advertiser to appeal to gay consumers. They are therefore different, as are all highly targeted ads, in that they intend to reach and speak only to a specific audience whose interests, habits, and preferences are taken into account. These ads sometimes depict people of diverse or indeterminate ethnic and racial backgrounds, although the vast majority of the ads show only white people. The ones examined here do depict racial and ethnic diversity in the LGBT community.
Bud Light encourages readers to "be yourself." The illustration pictures women as well as men, and whites as well as people who are either clearly or possibly non-white. In addition, the familiar rainbow, a well-known LGBT symbol, appears twice in the ad. Once, it is the color base for the brand logo. Then, one color from the rainbow appears on each person in the otherwise monochromatic ad.
Wells Fargo proclaims its support for LGBT issues in an ad that features two men and a dog. Even though there is no certainty that they are gay, the image is easily interpretable as a gay couple with their pet. Several factors support this interpretation, including the residential setting, the proximity of the two men, the out-walking-the-dog clothes of the men and the accompanying copy, which includes the word "pride."
Many other companies show their open support for LGBT people in their ads.34 Volvo, for example, depicts a panorama of LGBT lifestyles. The ad features (from L-R): two women embracing, one of them clearly pregnant; an interracial lesbian couple in an affectionate pose in a domestic setting; a white gay couple with an African-American baby; a racially ambiguous gay couple embracing, one of whom holds what is presumably their pet; a racially ambiguous lesbian couple lying on a bed; and a white gay couple in an affectionate pose. Through all this, Volvo demonstrates its understanding of diversity within LGBT relationships.
A Southern Comfort whiskey ad shows six men walking along a sidewalk. They are physically close to one another and one man(African-American) has his arm over the shoulder of another man (white). It is, however, the words of the ad along with the context of placement in Out, that makes it possible to interpret this is an interracial group of close, presumably gay men.
Finally, a public service ad sponsored by the California Department of Health Sciences depicts a group of LGBT people marching in support of the anti-smoking movement. The image includes the rainbow flag and references the discrimination that gay people face in the larger society. The group includes women (presumably lesbians) and men (presumably gay) as well as people of diverse races.
Thus, this selection of ads from Out shows that many national companies as well as some state governments recognize and support LGBT people and their lifestyles and recognize the diversity within their community. At present, this level of support and depictions of racial and ethnic diversity among non-heterosexual people are largely confined to specialized media like Out. Whether general audience ads will eventually feature this degree of openness and diversity remains to be seen.
6. Some Related Issues
Fetishizing the Black Body
Read about the history of the representation of black men.
From the Age of Exploration (beginning in the 15th century) onwards, black bodies have been treated as "other." Black men were thought to be low in intelligence but to possess great physical prowess. This so-called empirical evidence was based on observations in non-European parts of the world, and in turn led to the conclusion that black men's bodies are more animal-like than other humans, and that, in addition to their unusually strong bodies, these men were highly sexed creatures with extraordinary genitals.
A version of this racial myth continues in 20th- and 21st-century advertising as the fetishization of the black body. In these ads, black bodies are depicted as hyperpotent and extremely strong. This occurs not just in ads featuring famous athletes but also in gay contexts, like Out, where the black body is treated as an object of great beauty, sexual attractiveness, and desire.
Lesbians as Well as Gays
Although Out magazine originally billed itself as a magazine for gay and lesbian readers, most of the advertising images show gays rather than lesbians. This may be based in the demographics of readership, but it is more than that. Just as the English pronoun he when used generically requires women to understand themselves as included, depictions of gay men in ads function similarly as a generic statement of homonormativity by asking lesbians to understand themselves as included as well. The same goes for racial and ethnic representations of gays as white Anglos.39
Older ads with Gay Subtexts
Read a New York Times article about Gay Vague.
When reviewing older advertising images, it is sometimes possible to "read" a gay subtext into them. When in, say, the 1930s or 1940s, homosexuality was typically illegal in most American jurisdictions and out gay people simply did not exist, ads showing various kinds of intimacy and close relations can be interpreted retrospectively as having a gay subtext. Many of these ads have taken on an iconic or even campy status in contemporary gay culture.
Lesbians as a Straight Male Fantasy
Read a blog entry about lesbians as male fantasy objects.
Depictions of women in what appear to be lesbian situations have appeared in general audience magazine and TV commercials for at least the last two decades or so. However, these have not been representations of lesbian sexuality or lifestyles to lesbian audiences. Rather, they are understood as straight male fantasies, because they appear in media like Playboy and Sports Illustrated. These images of sexually ambiguous or clearly lesbian women speak to the fantasies of a great many straight men.44 Such ads include non-white as well as white women.
7. Pushing Too Far over Socially Acceptable Limits
Advertising images can be daring and push boundaries quite successfully. For example, fashion advertising is highly sexualized and frequently explores sexual variations (for example, Tom Ford).47 There are sometimes situations, however, when the social boundaries are overstepped. Two recent examples illustrate.
First, Benetton's 2011 Unhate campaign features a computer-generated image of Pope Benedict kissing Muhammad el-Tayeb, a well-known Muslim cleric. An immediate legal response from the Vatican and the social outcry from other offended people let Benetton know that they had stepped over the line of acceptability. The Vatican issued this statement: "This is a grave lack of respect for the pope, an offense against the sentiments of the faithful and a clear example of how advertising can violate elementary rules of respect for people in order to attract attention through provocation." As a result Benetton pulled the ad and issued an apology to those who were offended.
Read Angela Davis on the Myth of the Black Rapist.
Second, there are virtually no advertising images that depict interracial couples made up of a black man with a white woman. This taboo has been successfully broken in American social life and TV sitcoms, but it remains practically off limits in the world of advertising. To venture here is so risky that few businesses seem willing to try it, at least now. This kind of interracial couple too easily recalls the opening images of this unit: the black man attacking a white female victim.
In recent years, academic interest in social distinctions has moved beyond the classic three categories (age, sex, and social class) to consider many other types of distinctions within society, including sexuality and race/ethnicity. This unit focuses on sexuality in advertising (as distinct from gender) but does so with the full recognition that a contemporary discussion of sexuality isolated from other major forms of social distinction is shortsighted. Accordingly, it considers sexuality in advertising along with its entanglement with race, ethnicity, and other social categories with which it is deeply entangled.
Modern advertising simply assumed heteronormativity in both content and audience for most its history (circa 1870s-present). Recent decades in advertising practice have seen a gradual shift toward a recognition that the consumer base consists of a more diverse population, that society itself is broadening horizon regarding sexuality, and that it simply makes good business sense to take diversity within society into consideration. Thus, advertisements no longer depict all models in all ads as unquestionably straight nor do media placements assume only a single, narrowly straight—that is, mom, dad, and the kids—audience for ads. This crumbling of strict heteronormativity is being replaced with images of racially and ethnically diverse populations within the "greater-than-heteronormative" world.
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 ADTextOnline.org, which will consist of more than 25 units published as supplements to A&SR.
An abbreviated version of this unit was originally created as a reading for a classroom resource that is currently under construction. The AEF will study race and ethnicity in American advertising from 1890 through the present day. Their goal is to create a definitive online exhibition about how American experiences of race and ethnicity have shaped and been shaped by the development of advertising over the course of the 20th century. A prototype of "Race & Ethnicity in Advertising-America:1890-Today" will be Beta tested in a select number of college classrooms during Spring 2013 semester. Please check in at aef.com for progress updates.
1. "Body Politics: Not Yet Past-the-Other (Part One)," Discoatemybaby Blog, February 14, 2012, http://discoatemybaby.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/body-politics-not-yet-past-the-other-part-one.
2. Heteronormativity is the ideology that proclaims that heterosexuality is the normal sexual orientation of people, and that sexual and marital relations are only appropriate between a man and a woman.
3. Katherine Sender, Business, Not Politics: The Making of the Gay Market (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
4. For example, depictions of women only changed after the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s was well along its way. Also, the severe antismoking ads of 2012 began appearing a long time after the society had largely accepted the idea that smoking is unhealthy.
5. It was not until Ellen (1994) and Will and Grace (1998) that TV programs featured gays and lesbians as central characters and in a positive light, or in a respectful way.
6. "Vanilla Label Banana Republic Debuts Interracial Couple in New Ad Campaign," Bindie.com Blog, December 24, 2008, http://blindie.com/2008/12/24/vanilla-label-banana-republic-debuts-interracial-couple-in-new-ad-campaign.
9. Scholars also include intersex individuals, that is, persons with ambiguous genitals or genitals of both sexes, as a matter of sex differences.
10. These expectations can and do vary from one culture to another.
11. Watson & McGill, 1876. Duke University Library Digital Collections, http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa_D0313/.
12. Harper's Weekly, September 26, 1884, 488.
13. Harper's Weekly, March 11, 1893, 244.
14. The Delineator, October 1904, via http://www.flickr.com/photos/christine592/3630614539/
15. Ladies' Home Journal, March 1915.
16. Lifebuoy, 1923. Duke University Library Digital Collections, http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/adaccess_BH1188/.
17. "Candy Advertisements of the 1930s," Vintage Ad Browser, http://www.vintageadbrowser.com/candy-ads-1930s/3#ade3hynwrmypc29t.
18. Norfolk and Western, 1948. Duke University Library Digital Collections, http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/adaccess_T2463/.
19. Dumont, 1951. Duke University Library Digital Collections, http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/adaccess_TV0455/.
20. "1960 AD Pepsi Cola Christmas, a family, and toy train advertising," eBay listing by "adlibrary," http://www.ebay.com/itm/1960-AD-Pepsi-Cola-Christmas-family-and-toy-train-advertising-/200661962816.
21. "1977 Campbell's Soup Recipe Family Magazine Print Advertisement Page," eBay listing by "fargostreasure," http://www.ebay.com/itm/1977-Campbells-Soup-Recipe-Family-Magazine-Print-Advertisement-Page-/380322192845.
22. "[ Retro Scan of the Week ] The NES Action Set Family," posted by Benj Edwards, Vintage Computing and Gaming Blog, November 23, 2009, http://www.vintagecomputing.com/index.php/archives/611.
23. Life, June 5, 1995.
24. Elle Décor, November 2002.
25. Good Housekeeping, March 2011, 133.
26. Good Housekeeping, March 2011, 135.
27. IKEA Ad, "Dining Room Table," GLAAD Advertising Media Program, http://www.commercialcloset.org/common/adlibrary/adlibrarydetails.cfm?QID=76&ClientID=11064.
28. From the author's collection.
29. From the author's collection.
30. From the author's collection.
31. The ads discussed in this section were drawn from the February, June, and November issues of Out, 1992-2010.
32. Out, June 2003.
33. Out, June-July 2009.
34. There are perhaps many motivations for this, but at the base of such practices lie important business reasons. Many advertisers now recognize the buying power of the gay market and want to cultivate this niche market. (See "Niche Advertising: Gay Consumers and Multiculturalism in the Marketplace" in AdText.) In addition, it makes good business sense to try as hard as possible to be sensitive to all potential consumers and to avoid alienating any of them.
35. Out, June 2003.
36. Out, June 1995.
37. Out, June 2004.
39. Advertising typically seeks to be inclusive, and the working assumption has been, until recently, that white is generic and non-whites should feel included. Contemporary advertising increasingly is moving beyond the generic use of white or gay.
40. Out, October 1995.
41. "They must have slept on a Karpen," Commercial Closet, http://www.commercialcloset.org/common/adlibrary/adprintdetails.cfm?QID=1388&ClientID=11064. Ad appeared in Good Housekeeping, April 1939.
42. "Bradley Group Showers," The Washfountain Blog, April 12, 2011, http://washfountain.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/bradley-group-showers/.
43. "From a WWII magazine," The Decorum Forum Blog, April 24, 2010, http://decorumforum.blogspot.com/2010/04/from-wwii-magazine.html. Ad appeared in Life, August 16, 1943.
44. In classroom discussions of these ads with my undergraduate students at Duke University, it is frequently suggested that the logic of this male follows along the lines of, "I like having sex with women. I also like watching women having sex. It is way cooler and way more interesting to watch just women than to see another man involved in it which makes me jealous."
45. "Backseat," The Gap, 1993, Commercial Closet, http://www.commercialcloset.org/common/adlibrary/adPrintdetails.cfm?QID=514&clientID=11064.
47. See "Sex and Advertising" in ADText.
48. "Benetton's Controversial Unhate Campaign," My Modern Metropolis Blog, November 16, 2011, http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/benetton-unhate-campaign.