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LGBT-Friendly Ads: Helpful Or Hurtful?

CREDIT: Courtesy of Honey Maid.

Honey Maid. Hotwire. Allstate. CVS. DirecTV. Chevrolet. Although these companies may seem like they don’t have a great deal in common in terms of what they sell,  they all have begun to sell one particular thing—LGBT couples.

Last month, the rebranded CVS Health was applauded for its LGBT-inclusive ad. CVS stopped selling cigarettes, renamed itself CVS Health, and made it clear to the public that the company is committed to health – for everyone. The ad features two men, which are obviously a couple, looking into a mirror together. 

DirecTV started the NFL season with an ad featuring a gay couple. The ad, which featured one of the actors wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, coincidentally coincided with Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player drafted to the NFL, being drafted to the Cowboys as a defensive end. Though on October 21, the Cowboys announced he had been waived from the practice squad and Sam took to Twitter to express his thanks for the opportunity, but called it “disappointing,” according to ESPN

“We’re seeing more and more Fortune 500 companies reach out in the market to the LGBT community and developing creative executions for the commercials that are inclusive of LGBT individuals. We’re seeing much more of that year over year,” Mark Elderkin CEO of Gay Ad Network said, a business that connects advertisers with gay consumers.

There’s no doubt that there’s thoughtful action being taken to create more LGBT-inclusive ads, as NPR recently wrote that advertisers are finally coming out of the closet.

But what does it all mean? Some say LBGT-inclusive ads are overcompensating. As Salon put it, the ad screams salesmanship rather than solidarity on the issue.

Earlier this year, Honey Maid made strides by, for one of the first times, finally getting it right when it came to incorporating sexual orientation into ads. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern wrote that prior to Honey Maid’s commercial LGBT-friendly ads would either have “gay panic humor” or “excessive ambiguity.”

Honey Maid received backlash from organizations such as One Million Moms, which called the ad an “attempt to normalize sin.” The ad featured interracial and LGBT parents and included the message “This is wholesome.” Eventually, there was a follow up ad citing some of the criticisms and turning it into a message of love, according to ABC News.

Coca-Cola had an ad during the Super Bowl featuring a LGBT couple and their daughter, and was considered a “landmark” ad, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The couple and their daughter are shown roller-skating for a matter of seconds and are hardly the focal point of the ad.

Justin Peligri, a senior at The George Washington University majoring in political communication, has feelings similar to that of the Salon article – that when advertisers suddenly stop feeling the need to make huge declarations of inclusiveness is when progress will truly be made.

“Companies who feature LGBT people in their ads are making an importantand, unfortunately, provocativestatement. For better or for worse, LGBT people in ads shown being affectionate still makes news,” Peligri said. “The hope is that one day, LGBT people can be respected and treated just like everyone else, making their presence in advertisements commonplace and not newsworthy.”

Elderkin of the Gay Ad Network said smaller companies tend to be more progressive and innovative, as well. Though, because they are such large companies, it’s the Fortune 500 companies making the headlines.

Some of the PR “stunts,” Elderkin said, like the Burger King gay pride whopper, are aimed more toward consumers of all types, not just the LBGT consumer.

“Those were to generate goodwill for the organizations across all consumer segments, not necessarily the LBGT consumer segments at its focus,” he said.

In June, Burger King launched the Proud Whopper, which featured rainbow wrappings, with the message of “We are all the same on the inside.” According to the Associated Press, the campaign was part of an effort to connect with younger consumers.

Daniel D’Addario of Slate, wrote of the Burger King gay pride Whopper, that if it’s the case we are all the same on the inside, why are only gay people targets for “pandering messages about equality,” while Adweek praised the campaign.

Peligri said he’s heard some people use the argument that companies are “pimping out gay people” in advertising just for the media attention. The same argument he said he sometimes sees when people complain how corporate pride festivals have become with sponsorships.

“To me, though, I think it’s so awesome that some companies today feel like they have to pander to LGBT customers to make money. I’ve found that personally redeeming, and certainly make a point of giving my business to organizations that are supportive of my community,” he said. “It really shows that the tides are turning and that people see value in the LGBT community as an important demographic of consumers, not just a group of people that should be ostracized from the mainstream.”

This year, America saw its first gay couple featured in advertising during an Olympic broadcast through a Chevrolet ad. Sponsors of the event all spoke out against Russian anti-gay law as well. The ad from Chevy, which received a large amount of press, described as “The New Us,” which showed how families have changed and so has the company.

There has still been a noticeable lack of trans-identified individual representation in ads.

Adam Piccin, a 21-year-old public relations and health communication student at Otterbein University, has feelings similar to that of Martinez.  He also sees the noticeable lack of trans individuals in advertising.

“The bottom line is more and more companies are jumping on the bandwagon, and one day, it will hopefully be common to see couples of all types featured in the media. It would be wonderful to see future generations not view the LGBT community in a negative light at all,” Piccin said. “As acceptance of the LGBT community spreads, I think that we could possibly see more trans individuals represented in the media in the future.”

Brian Kearney, a 23-year-old advertising student at Rowan University in New Jersey and member of the LBGT community, said society and media are not “there yet” when it comes to including trans individuals in advertising, though the trans community has made recent strides with visibility as celebrities like Laverne Cox “pave the way.”

Advertisers have grown to adopt LBGT spokespeople as well, one of the most prominent being Ellen DeGeneres and her contract with CoverGirl.

Peligri points out that in DeGeneres’ case it’s important to note that she was probably not chosen as a spokeswoman because she’s gay. DeGeneres has managed to become a “mainstream role model despite her status as a minority figure,” he said. That choice sends a message that CoverGirl is able to transcend stereotypes.

“Either way, as a gay person, I think we should be open to welcoming any public support we can get, whether it is from politicians in Washington, the Supreme Court, or big American corporations,” Peligri said.

University of Florida graduate Kristen Martinez, 25, said though there may be some issues with the current state of LBGT-friendly advertising, it’s definitely better than it was in the past. Martinez works for Pacific NorthWell out of Seattle and focuses on LBGT affirmative counseling.

“First, [gay-friendly ads] didn’t exist in advertising. Then, they were portrayed stereotypically and arguably offensively. Finally, we are just coming around to seeing real representations of people with ethnic minority identities in advertising and the media in general,” Martinez said. “I believe that with more exposure of the queer community in advertising, the stereotypes will be shed in light of real, honest representations.”

In any form of an identity, she said, whether it’s someone who is black, female, Christian, a doctor or any identity of any kind, it’s always difficult to boil that identity down into a 30-second spot. She said advertisers may use gay couples rather than individuals just because it’s easier for a consumer to understand that “these are gay individuals.” 

“As more and more gay, lesbian, and bisexual people find their way into our media, I believe the portrayals will be less and less stereotypical, as they will eventually be viewed as ‘just like everyone else’ and will be more and more likeable. This is known as the mere-exposure effect or the familiarity principle in social psychology,” she said. 

Kearney said he believes advertising is “undoubtedly helpful” to the LBGT community.

“[LBGT-friendly advertising] shows individuals who may not be too aware of the LGBT community that we are not different from them. I like to think that advertising doesn’t depict heterosexual or homosexual couples, just couples,” Martinez said. “I hope as time goes on that everyone will start seeing that as well.”

Kelsey Meany is a reporter with Generation Progress.

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