By Arielle Axelrod
I attribute my fascination with queer commercials to Amnesty International. I was watching a sitcom on Hulu when suddenly my screen went dark. There’s no sound with the exception of haunting, faintly Russian music. The scene shows a man robbing a store, with two barely visible men looking at candy. The police come and ignore the robbery and instead arrest the two candy shoppers. The scene ends and a yellow banner appears, bearing the words: “In many countries, being homosexual is worse than being a common criminal. Help Amnesty International change this state of affairs.”
This commercial threw me off guard. Unlike other queer commercials, this one wasn’t playing on my emotions. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t trying to sell me anything and it wasn’t casually throwing in the occasional gay couple. No, this was using logic to show just how insane some laws are and that hit home.
Queer commercials have many distinguishing characteristics. As stated by Ad Week, the first queer commercial to air in the United States was in 1994, by Ikea. It ran in only three major cities and played after 10pm in order to not be shown during “family hour.” The commercial features two men, simultaneously talking about their relationship and their admiration for the Ikea furniture. In one scene, the men quickly move from discussing how they met each other at a wedding to how sturdy the Ikea chairs are. Perhaps the commercial was purposely composed of these abrupt changes of conversation to distract the audience from what they were seeing, or perhaps it was simply a marketing ploy to attract more queer consumers. Although there was plenty of tension and backlash both during shooting and once it aired, Ikea never faltered and stood behind the commercial.
But what do queer commercials look like today? A lot of the queer commercials I found were hosted on a YouTube channel maintained by an LGBT marketing firm, but the issue of queer representation in media has been a major topic of discussion and allowed me to easily find a variety of commercials to analyze. I narrowed down the commercials by looking at well-known American brands and comparing them to European commercials that had generated some sort of statement in the media. I found that commercials for an American audience took two approaches: the first being explicit and the second being implicit. Those commercials that I deemed explicit were very obvious in their rendition of a queer couple with no distracting elements that took away from the performance; these commercials tended to be humorous. While not necessarily mocking queer people, the commercial relies on funny stereotypes in order to be effective. On the other hand, the commercials I considered implicit were very subtle in their approach. Often times a queer couple was shown only for a few seconds and was simply added into a sequence of shots that included heterosexual couples.
An example of an explicit commercial was one by Doritos. It features a man cutting his hedge, wearing a backwards hat and by all appearances quite masculine, who is longingly looking at a bowl of Salsa Verde Doritos while a sexy Spanish song is playing in the background. The camera is focused on the bowl of Doritos, blocking the audience from seeing who is eating them. The drooling man’s girlfriend walks on the screen and gives him a very confused look. The camera then zooms out and we see two men eating the Doritos in short swim shorts by a pool. They say hello and the drooling man snaps out of his daydream and looks very confused. The two men by the pool then look at each other and say, “told you so.” Humor helps soften the blow by not bombarding people with foreign or non-dominant images of a couple. By adding a sense of humor, Doritos takes a dominant stand on explicitly showing a queer couple without pushing people too far.
An alternative approach that queer commercials take is the subtle addition of queer families, couples, and individuals to their already existing customer base, which I define as an implicit approach. For example, Honey Maid’s Wholesome Family commercial features a variety of families, including homosexual parents and is geared for a wide range of consumers. The commercial first shows a gay couple with a newborn baby, then a family with tattoos, and then a racially mixed family with the slogan “Wholesome Snacks for Wholesome Families”. By flawlessly interweaving social deviation with social norms, the commercials makes you wonder why we even consider the queer relationship different.
On the other hand, a Marlboro’s commercial spoofs the movie Brokeback Mountain and stars two men on horseback riding to their campsite. One man lights the cigarette and the other man immediately spits it out exclaiming, “Dude, this is menthol! Do you think I’m gay?” with the caption below saying, “smoke like a man”. The commercial ends with the other man looking at his cigarette and sighing, “I wish I could quit you.” By assuming that only gay men would smoke menthol, the commercial is enforcing sexual stereotypes. The tone of voice used by the actor to display disgust with the assumption that he is gay further criticizes gay behavior and connects the behavior with being not masculine. This sort of representation counteracts queer acceptance by showing disgust, and automatically assumes that queer behavior cannot co-exist with masculine
While American commercials are stuck in limbo, European commercials are taking a stand. A prime example of a European commercial is Renault’s Twingo. The scene begins with a father and a daughter in a Twingo (a small European car) dressed in wedding apparel. The father and daughter arrive at a church and walk down the aisle towards a younger male. The daughter then congratulates her dad and walks away. The commercial ends with “Times Have Changed. The Twingo Too.” This commercial is explicit in its message of not only accepting queer relationships (as well as cross-generational relationships), but pointing out that it’s time for everyone else to accept them as well. This commercial is a perfect example of a company not only being explicit, but not being superficial and thus making a stance.
An even more extreme example of explicit queer representation by European commercials is Ikea’s Austria ad. The ad features a man and a woman passionately kissing on a table until the man’s boyfriend walks in, revealing that the star is in fact bisexual. In contrast, an American commercial for the Kindle reader features a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple lounging side by side on the beach with the joke being that both have husbands who are fetching drinks. The idea of using humor begs the question of why a company would choose to make a more distinct, yet anti-humorous stance. I believe that a company bold enough to create a commercial without humor as a backup can create a more lasting impression on their audience. Doritos does not make the audience connect with the characters; their primary concern is marketing Doritos. In contrast, the emotional feelings the audience experiences when watching the Twingo commercial are a direct reaction to a social issue. Twingo humanizes the characters and makes an obvious stand on the issue of queer representation and acceptance.
So the question becomes why do these companies (especially American ones) choose to become superficial in their expression? Why aren’t these companies more explicit in their queer representation? If including queer couples is a part of a larger marketing scheme in attracting and retaining customers, it would seem logical to have more explicit representation, as in the Kindle and Doritos spots. Yet both of these used humor as a way of marketing towards heterosexual couples. We see, however, that the more implicit approach creates intimacy for consumers, yet still only momentarily shows queer couples. The exception to this rule is Hallmark’s #PutYourHeartToPaper commercial. This model American commercial is explicit in presenting a queer couple, but also completely lacks humor and instead focuses on emotion. This balance shows that companies can both take a stand and engage their consumers without alienating them. So why are so many companies avoiding this approach? Perhaps companies are instead trying not to alienate their more conservative consumer base. But then why include the commercials that are explicit, yet humorous? It appears that companies are stuck between the marketing pull for more queer representation and the fear of taking a moral stand. That’s what I want. I want companies that make bold claims even if they lose profits. I want these companies to make queer representation the norm, without using humor as backup. I want companies to back up their moral stand with the logic behind marketing to a broader, not narrower audience. If they do this, their profits may well increase and maybe, just maybe, our world will be a happier, more accepting place to live.