J.C. Leyendecker—the most successful commercial artist of the 1920s, and also a gay man—often seasoned his work with surprisingly sexual male-on-male imagery, such as this WWI Navy recruiting poster (complete with stripped-down sailors and that suggestively positioned projectile). It’s a testament to how thoroughly invisible the gay community was at this time that the military brass who OK’d this ad didn’t even see it as suggestive.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Leyendecker was riffing off the old dropping-the-soap joke in this 1919 ad for Ivory, but it’s hardly the first time the artist’s ads showed groups of young men showering or undressing together. Nevertheless, back in 1919, 12 naked guys “under the hose” didn’t register as homoerotic—at least, it didn’t to Procter & Gamble.
The fetching young blond valet in this 1921 Kuppenheimer ad was likely based on Leyendecker’s boyfriend Charles Beach, who often modeled for the ads Leyendecker drew. This ad was more than just an appeal to well dressed gentlemen; it was a symbolic motif for Leyendecker and Beach, who were nearly a generation apart in age, but lived and worked together for five decades.
In the war years, numerous brands found advertising themes in the shenanigans of enlisted men—but none took it to the level of Cannon’s “True Towel Tales” series. In “Crocodiles Keep Out,” these bathing G.I.s are buff and in the buff, too. Not only is there a full moon in the foreground, these guys are a lot more comfortable with collective nudity than our assumptions about the period would suggest.
“Buna Bathtub,” another eye-popping Cannon ad from the “True Towel” series, features a soldier who could have put a flamenco dancer out of a job, camping it up with a palm frond while his compatriots whistle at him. In an era when Clark Gable’s uttering the word “damn” in Gone With the Wind left movie audiences shocked, how did an ad this blatantly suggestive even run? “There was just no sensibility about gay people at that time,” says author and professor Bruce Joffe. “It was just the nature of men under those circumstances to camp it up.” Indeed so.
One last scene from the war years, this 1945 ad for Camel cigarettes is a good example of how easy it is to read gay messaging into an old ad that obviously didn’t intend it. There was nothing especially unusual about a sailor bumming a cigarette at the shaving sink. But the collective imagery—two young sailors in the steamy lower decks of a ship, one guy borrowing the other one’s shirt—is almost more suggestive now than it was 68 years ago.
The mission of this 1945 ad for Wilson Wear pajamas was to tout “Nobelt Super Shorts” and let consumers know that the war’s end would soon mean the return of actual rubber waistbands. Well, that’s lovely news, but … uh, what’s going on in this picture? Why are these three strapping lads waking up and getting dressed the same room? The ad offers not a clue. And despite that framed picture of a woman atop the bureau, these guys seem to dig each other’s company just fine, thanks.
From 1948 to 1950—and certainly without intending to—Schlitz evoked a thematic parallel between a guy’s questioning his sexuality and questioning his choice of beer. The “I Was Curious” campaign proffered numerous variations on the same theme: One man admits he’s “curious” to try the beer, another man offers him some, and the first man is surprised how much he likes it. We assume he’ll be back for more.
As the Marlboro Man proved, the rugged male could be a highly effective advertising image for selling cigarettes. But Salem seems to have crossed a line with this strange 1974 ad, which adds a cheesy romantic twist to the average camping trip.
With the AIDS crisis in full swing during the 1980s, Absolut was among the few brands with the guts to target gay male consumers directly. Nonetheless, this ad is only gay in a coded sense. The artwork of Keith Haring wasn’t on the radar of many Americans. To the gay community, though, Haring was both activist and a hero—a fact that gave this ad far more impact when it appeared in the pages of The Advocate in 1987.
When Calvin Klein’s then-advertising vp Neil Kraft asked David Geffen to borrow Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg for an underwear shoot in 1992, he created one of the most iconic ads of the late 20th century—one that gay men immediately adopted as their own, even though Kraft wasn’t deliberately targeting them. The muscle-boy-in-his-drawers genre remains with us to this day, along with the question that still has no answer: Are these ads “gay” or not?
This 1994 ad is a textbook example of the “gay vague “ genre to emerge in the 1990s. Here’s a group of good-looking “buddies” out on the town, doing a little imbibing. They’re chummy, but not overly touchy. Is this a group of gay men, straight men or some mix of the two? We’ll never know—because the brand doesn’t want us to. This ad could work perfectly well in a mainstream magazine or a gay one.
Bud Light was one of the first brands to make an overt, unambiguous appeal to the gay-male demographic. Slogans such as “Be yourself”—prosaic in any other context—held a special significance for gay consumers. Still, while Bud was ahead of its time, its ads often confirmed gay stereotypes like the ones in view here: that all gay men are muscular, white, and clomp around in cutoff shorts and construction boots. “Be yourself?” While some gay men saw themselves in ads like this, others did not.
Pretty boys in fashion and cologne ads are one thing, but you know that gay marketing’s gone mainstream when a tire brand is suddenly making its pitch to the gay dudes. This Bridgestone ad dates to 2003, and features a few interesting touches: The gorgeous models have their shirts on for a change; the fact that they’re buying tires together suggests a long-term relationship. Still, the tagline about accessorizing trots out yet another tired gay stereotype.
Given the conservative trappings of the financial-services sector, Washington Mutual turned plenty of heads when it debuted this 2006 ad, clearly targeted at gay male couples. WaMu broke the mold in another way, too: It managed to produce an unambiguously gay ad without resorting to coding (rainbow flags, pink triangles, etc.), and even without showing any gay men.
As this 2007 ad for Armani demonstrates, the fashion-beefcake genre pioneered by Calvin Klein—and pushed to sweaty new heights by the likes of Abercrombie & Fitch—is still alive and well. In most of these ads, the swarthy, rippled-ab Euro gods usually stare dully at the camera. What makes this “gay-vague” ad a bit less vague is the fact that the gent on the left is clearly studying the other’s intergluteal cleft.