L.G.B.T. Advertising: Chasing The Pink Dollar

Get this episode from Under The Influence: L.G.B.T. Advertising: Chasing The Pink Dollar (Season 1, Episode 22) - EP - CBC Radio

The gay community will spend over $800 billion dollars this year. A large percentage are affluent, hip and trendsetting, yet the advertising industry took decades to market to them. This week, we look at L.G.B.T. - or Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender - advertising. From the first gay characters on mainstream television in the 70s, to the first big brand that dared to openly advertise to the Gay community in 1981, to the 10-year drought of gay advertising brought by the onset of AIDS, to its resurgence due to a recession, to the flashpoint of Ellen Degeneres coming out on her TV show, to the first transgender Miss Canada Universe contestant, to the friction it all still causes today, the gay market is a fascinating study in diversity, courage, profit and respect. The headline said: "First gay caveman found."

Archaeologists had discovered the 5,000 year-old remains of what they believe was a transsexual or "third gender" man.

Gay caveman photo of skeleton.jpgSource: Daily Mail

It was the way the body was buried that was highly unusual.

In the Copper Age, men were traditionally buried on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west. They would be buried alongside their weapons, hammers and flint knives.

Women, on the other hand, were buried on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east. Females were buried with necklaces, pets and copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near their feet.

Oval jug found in caveman grave.jpgSource: Daily Mail

But this unearthed male skeleton was buried in a way normally reserved for women of the Copper Age.

The body was interred on its left side with its head pointed west. An oval egg-shaped container usually associated with female burials was found at its feet.

None of the objects that accompany male burials, such as weapons or tools, were found in the grave.

While some scientists maintained that anthropology couldn't really determine sexual orientation, it was agreed the unusual burial did suggest a 'third gender' grave.

Clearly, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual or Transgender people have a long history.

Today, that market wields enormous purchasing power, a characteristic that usually attracts Madison Avenue like bees to honey.

But that hasn't been the case historically.

Instead, it's been a long, slow journey to acknowledgement. But that journey is a fascinating story.

In many ways, the advertising industry has excelled at selling products for the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom and the garage.

It's also very good at selling products you keep in the closet.

It just hasn't been very good at selling to the people who were once in the closet...

The L.G.B.T. market, or Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender market, is a powerful one.

Their total buying power in North America will cross the $800 billion dollar mark this year.

According to surveys conducted by Harris Interactive over the past decade, roughly 6.7% of the U.S. population self-identify as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender.

That translates to between 15 and 16 million adults over the age of 18.

In Canada, according to the Vanier Institute of the Family, that number is 2.8% of the population, or just under one million people.

BUT no big-brand advertising was aimed at the gay population until the 1980s.

But that said, if you look closely as some early print advertising, there were subtle, coded ads done by major advertisers going back as far as the early 20th century.

A 1915 print ad for Palmolive Soap showed an illustration of two beautiful women nestled in bed together, dressed in frilly negligees. There is an unmistakable sensuality in the ad, with the headline: "Appeals to Dainty Women."

1915 Palmolive Dainty Women.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

Another soap brand, Ivory Snow, seems to have been a brand that used advertisements aimed at their market at large, but used code to talk to the gay population.

In 1917, it ran a print ad in Outlook magazine, showing two men shopping for rugs - which at the time, was a very "domestic" couple-oriented thing to do.

In another ad from that same year, it shows a group of men showering in a locker room, with three men standing there watching the athletes as they shower.

The first line of copy reads: "Not the least of the pleasures of a hard game is the bath that follows it."

Ivory Snow shower ad.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

A 1939 Karpen Pil-O-Rest Mattress ad shows two women running on the beach, holding hands. The headline announces, "They must have slept on a Karpen Pil-O-Rest Mattress!"

Karpen Mattress ad.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

These ads were the result of one of two scenarios: Either these major brands were creating ads for their straight clientele while encoding them with subtler messages for their gay customers, or the artists creating the ads were gay themselves, and purposely embedded winking messages for the initiated.

The sexual suggestiveness and ambiguity of these ads is remarkable for the times.

Hollywood has hinted at gay themes, subplots and characters since the beginning of cinema.

In the 1916 movie Behind the Screen, a stagehand taunts Charlie Chaplin in an effeminate way after he thinks Charlie has kissed a boy, when in fact, it's a woman in drag. Go to 14:40 point below:

Source: YouTube

In 1930, Marlene Dietrich, dressed as man, walks over to a pretty women in a night club and kisses her on the lips as she finishes a performance.

Source: YouTube

In the 1930s, conservative groups lobbied for a "less permissive Hollywood." This resulted in the Motion Picture Production Code, which established moral censorship guidelines that lasted from 1930 until 1968.

Production Code Booklet.gifSource: Wikipedia.org

The Code banned depictions of such things as questionable sexuality, rape, abortion, white slavery, obscenity and prostitution.

But for all its efforts, the Production Code didn't erase homosexuals from the screen, it just make them harder to find. And for the next 40 years, it became a game of hide and seek with censors.

But it was television and its depictions of gays that had the biggest effect on advertising.

Source: YouTube

Billy Crystal's portrayal of Jodie Dallas on the sitcom Soap in 1977 is often credited with being the first ongoing gay character in TV history:

Source: YouTube

But it wasn't the first.

Way back in 1972, five years before Soap, there was a sitcom titled The Corner Bar, that featured a recurring gay character named Peter Panama, played by actor Vincent Shiavelli. And if you were to skip back one more year, there was an occasional gay character on All In The Family.

In an episode titled Judging Books By Covers, Archie Bunker discovers one of his drinking buddies - a big, ex-football player named Steve - is gay. Go to 4:50 below:

Source: YouTube

I remember the first time I ever saw gay characters portrayed on television. It was a 1972 made-for-TV movie called, That Certain Summer, starring Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen. I was 13 years old at the time, and I still remember it to this day.

That Certain Summer poster.jpgSource: Brettyspagetti.blogspot.com

It was a sympathetic story of a divorced father trying to tell his young son that he was gay.

Source: YouTube

As the 70s progressed, homosexuality began showing up in more primetime storylines. TV shows like Three's Company used it as an ongoing theme, as Jack Tripper pretended to be gay so his landlords would allow him to live with two pretty girls:

Source: YouTube

That series ran from 1977 to 1984. It was around that time that the first major brand began to advertise to the gay community.

The product was Absolut Vodka.

In 1981, the owners of Absolut felt that the L.G.B.T. community were trendsetters whose buying habits would eventually be adopted by other young, hip markets. So they began advertising in two gay magazines, called The Advocate and After Dark.

But they didn't just buy pages, they bought the back covers. It was a statement by Absolut of its commitment - as gay magazines could never historically get any major advertiser to buy the highly visible back covers.

Absolut not only proudly bought them, but locked them up for two years.

While Absolut initially ran their regular ads in those publications, it soon began creating gay-themed ads:

Absolut %22Out%22 #2.jpg
Source: CommercialCloset.org

Absolut rainbow ad.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

Absolut commitment ad.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

Last year, Absolut celebrated 30 years of L.G.B.T. advertising with a big, $4 million dollar "Absolut OUTrageous" campaign - accent on the OUT. The tagline was, "For going out and coming out." But even with a big brand like Absolut openly marketing to the LGBT audience in the early 80s, it was still a rarity.

Absolut %22Out%22 ad.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

When AIDS hit the news in the mid 80s, almost all gay-targeted advertising disappeared. Brands feared being labelled as a "gay" product and also risked "Moral Majority Boycotts."

But it took the recession of the early 90s to bring it back. With a tough economic climate, advertisers went in search of new, affluent markets. As a BBDO ad man remarked, when companies are forced to survive in a recession, they get liberal in a hurry.

The very next year, advertisers would finally take the plunge on television. In 1993, a TV ad for a Danish newspaper called Politiken, showed two men passionately kissing. It is believed to be a world first:

Source: YouTube

On this side of the ocean, it was an Ikea ad in 1994 that was the first to show gays openly portrayed in a mainstream TV commercial. In the ad, two men shop for a dining room table:

Source: YouTube

Within a week of airing, a few east coast Ikea stores were targeted by angry protesters, and one store received a bomb threat and was evacuated.

The ad was pulled after a few weeks.

Advertising Age Magazine said there had never been anything like that commercial before, and said it was a giant leap for the gay community.

Clearly, LGBT issues were slowly moving into the mainstream.

One big test of that change came in 1997, when Ellen Degeneres chose to come out on her sitcom:

Source: YouTube

There was a lot of anticipation leading up to that episode. Right-wing organizations threatened to boycott advertisers of that episode, and took out a full-page ad in Vanity Fair calling the show a "slap in the face of American families." The resulting controversy prompted Chrysler, Mazda, JCPenney and later, Wendy's, to pull their ads.

Ironically, over 42 million people watched that night, making it a ratings extravaganza. It was reported that ABC had no problem filling the vacant advertiser slots, and even charged double for the honour.

Interesting to note that a commercial for Volkswagen aired in that famous episode. It showed two young men in a VW searching for a couch, which many interpreted to be a gay couple:

Source: YouTube

Volkswagen expressed surprise that their commercial would be interpreted as showing two gay men. As a spokesperson said, "We just thought of them as two college guys out on a Sunday afternoon."

But within the context of that episode, the message took on a new meaning.

The Ellen Degeneres coming-out episode marked a turning point in the world of advertising.

Later that same year, according to Commercial Closet, an organization that tracks LGBT advertising, American Airlines, American Express, Miller Brewing and IBM all had a presence in gay marketing.

Subaru, for example, was one of the first major car companies to do research into the gay market, and discovered that a big percentage of lesbians loved their brand.

Using the theme, "Different Drivers. Different Roads," Subaru not only bought space in gay publications, but it used coded messages to gay women via the license plates in their ads.

Subaru Different driver ad.jpgSource: CommercialCloset.org

Some would say, for example, "XENA LVR" - a play on the popularity among lesbians of the TV show, Xena Warrior Princess. Or plates might say "P-Town" - a reference to Provincetown, a popular tourist destination for lesbians and gay men.

Hyundai ran a very funny gay-themed TV ad in 2000:

Source: YouTube

But in maybe the most recent example of a brand that hasn't always been seen supporting the LGBT audience, is the new USA Tourism campaign.

The song is "Land of Dreams" by Roseanne Cash. The commercial shows imagery of beautiful American landscapes and a diversity of American people.

And as Roseanne Cash sings, "There is a place for all we feel' - we see a gay male couple:


Source: YouTube

For all the advertisers that have included gay consumers in their communications over the years, it just might be this campaign - the campaign the U.S. sends out to the world - that may be the most meaningful message of all.

Strange as it may sound, being advertised to is a sign of respect. When a segment of the population is ignored by advertisers, it signals they are not valued.

But, of course, true acceptance can't just be about business.

Recently, Barack Obama said something no other President has said before - that same-sex marriage should be legal.

At the same time, a group called One Million Moms threatened to boycott JCPenney for hiring Ellen Degeneres to be its spokesperson.

Yet back in 1997, JCPenney pulled its advertising from Ellen's "coming out" episode.

And recently, the first transgender contestant ran in the Miss Universe Canada Contest. At first she was barred from competing, then pageant owner Donald Trump overruled the decision.

All of which proves we may have travelled 5,000 years since the gay caveman, but we haven't travelled many miles...

... when you're under the influence.

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