Gay Advertising’s Long March Out of the Closet

Same-sex imagery is much older than you think

While many early out-gay ads were “extraordinary, high quality” creative, they also tended to be “stereotypical and pandering,” notes Gary Hicks, professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University. They could also be downright silly. Hicks recalls a Budweiser ad picturing a guy reaching into the fridge for a beer with the caption “Another one’s coming out.” Another ad, also for Bud, shows a coffee table strewn with beer bottles, caps intact, with the line “Tops and Bottles.” This form of coded messaging may have resonated loud and clear to gay audiences, but Hicks notes it’s also patronizing.

On the flip side, talking in code worked for the handful of brands that were experimenting with gay-targeted ads in mainstream media by the ’90s. Case in point: a series of ads from 1994, each picturing the rear end of a Subaru and a different vanity license plate, including “P-TOWN” and “XENA LUVR.”

As Subaru’s then-director of marketing and advertising Tim Bennett recalls, “When we did internal research and showed the ads to straight employees, they didn’t pay attention to the plates.” Gay people, meanwhile, instantly recognized the first plate as shorthand for the popular gay vacation destination Provincetown, Mass., and the second as a reference to the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, which had an enormous lesbian following. Looking back on the campaign, Bennett says the brand was “dipping its toe in the water. We were trying to prove that there was a gay market, so we did the coding thing.”

The ’90s also saw the nadir of coding’s cousin, the so-called gay-vague ad, in which an artfully constructed scenario was obviously gay—except when it wasn’t. It was in this era that the gay suggestiveness of certain print advertising also began to migrate to TV. Consider Volkswagen’s spot “Sunny Afternoon” from 1997 in which two young guys rescue a piece of furniture discarded on the street in their VW Golf—it debuted during the famous coming-out episode of the ABC sitcom Ellen. The show “was a media and cultural moment—and then this commercial comes on. But the two men were not overtly defined. They could be friends, roommates or boyfriends. It allowed for multiple interpretations,” says Mike Wilke, founder of AdRespect, an online archive of LGBT-themed ads. Wilke coined the term gay vague.

Integral as coding and gay-vague ads have been in the journey of brands figuring out how to market to LGBT consumers, they left a mixed legacy. While marketers like Borders and Budweiser no doubt pulled in gay dollars by tagging their ads with gay-pride iconography such as pink triangles and rainbow flags, the fact that these are largely clandestine symbols denotes a lack of true openness on the part of the brands. Likewise, gay-vague ads—which have become common in marketing, particularly in fashion and fragrance campaigns—are marked by a certain dubiousness of intent. “The reason for gay-vague ads is that brands want to reach as many demographics as possible without alienating any of them,” Hicks says. “But then if they draw too much attention to themselves, the brand can always say, ‘Oh, that’s not what we meant.’”

While maintaining a haze around its motives may give a brand wiggle room, it can also cause problems. In 1992, 20-year-old Mark Wahlberg (aka Marky Mark) stripped down to his boxer briefs for a series of now-iconic Calvin Klein ads appearing via billboards, bus shelters and virtually every magazine in the free world. Sales of the underwear went from $11 million to $150 million within a year, remembers the ad’s creator, Neil Kraft, the former svp of advertising and creative services at Calvin Klein. Plenty of those underpants shoppers were no doubt gay men, who along the way helped to make a marginal white rapper from Boston an international celebrity. Yet Wahlberg, a devout Catholic who would go on to become a serious Hollywood actor, never seemed all that comfortable with the idea of dudes admiring his six-pack—or other standout characteristics. Once Wahlberg got tagged a homophobe, gay men “began to sense they had been robbed,” as the British newspaper The Independent put it.

Despite the renown of the Marky Mark ad, none other than Kraft insists it really wasn’t gay per se. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to market to gay men, though it certainly wasn’t something we discouraged when we realized it was happening—we knew he’d appeal to both,” says Kraft, who went on to start his own shop, KraftWorks. Kraft thinks it’s foolish for any brand to exclusively target gay men, if only because they are a small percentage of the population. At the same time, he adds, it is “disingenuous for brands to say that they don’t want to appeal to them.”

More recently, gay-vague marketing led to a backlash against Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, who denied that the youth-oriented retailer targets gay men—even though its ads are shot by Bruce Weber, one of the foremost documentarians of beefcake, and feature frat boys showering together. Still, Jeffries insisted, “It’s not about any labels.”

As implausible as that comment may sound, it does raise a point. In a sense, nearly all these ads—from J.C. Leyendecker to Marky Mark to A&F—could be tagged as gay-vague. As Hicks points out, the gay community is apt to read meaning into any seemingly gay-friendly ad seeing as it is “so hungry to see images of itself and see mainstream companies recognizing their existence”­—whether the brands actually do or not.

Recent campaigns from the likes of JCPenney, Amazon, Gap and Ray-Ban may well be a sign that vagueness as a marketing convention is itself passing into history. These are brands, after all, not just hinting about homosexuality, but depicting the real lives of men and women to whom they are reaching out.

Hey, it only took a century.

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