Ad Report Card: Is Gay Funny?

How do advertisers think of gays and lesbians? As valued consumers? Or do they just see homosexuality as a punch line? Or both? This installment of “Ad Report Card” deals with two spots that are informed by, or at least allude to, homosexuality: One is a spot, which you can watch here via Adcritic, for an online car-buying service called The other ad, for Visa, is viewable here. (Adcritic requires QuickTime.)

But these are by no means the only examples out there. A “Moneybox” correspondent, who first told me about both these commercials, also brought to my attention over the summer a couple of “trend” articles about gay- and lesbian-targeted marketing. In each article, the theme was vagueness: ads that deliver a subtle message that many straight consumers miss. A Washington Post story pointed to Suburu posters with the slogan, “It’s Not A Choice. It’s the Way We’re Built.” The New York Times referred to billboards for a trashcan that “Swings Both Ways” and to a Heineken TV spot in which two male sports fans briefly hold hands while handling beer bottles (more on this spot below). Before we draw any conclusions about whether any of this means that advertisers, or their audiences, are generally more enlightened than they used to be, let’s consider the Giggo and Visa spots.

The ads: In the Giggo spot, a young man approaches his father, a Joe Six-pack type who seems to be painting war toys in the basement. “Dad, there’s something I want to tell you,” the kid begins. “Yeah, what?” Dad practically spits. “I’m gay,” the kid says. Dad’s eyes pop, the frame freezes, and a computer window opens. It’s one of those little level adjusters, the kind of thing that comes up on your computer when you want to adjust the volume. It’s labeled “Adjust Dad’s Attitude,” and while it is currently set off to one side at “Hostile,” an arrow clicks and moves it the other way to “Supportive” before closing the window. The ad resumes, and instead of unleashing rage or disgust, Dad Six-pack mildly notes there’s a guy at the plant with a gay son and maybe they would like each other. Punch line delivered, a voiceover bursts in to say, “Wow, that was painless. Like, where you take control of buying a car … “

The Visa ad takes place in a tattoo parlor. An unconvincing young tough is asked by his knockout girlfriend, Donna, if he’s sure about the tattoo he’s getting. “I want everyone to know who I love,” he says sweetly. But the tattoo costs $50, and he only has $41. Next thing you know Donna is stomping away mad, and the guy is promising, “I’ll get it fixed!” Turns out he ended up getting “I Love Don” burned into his arm. If only he’d been carrying the Visa Check Card!

Offended? Let’s start with the Visa spot. Like the aforementioned Heineken ad, this one bothers at least some viewers because the humor wouldn’t work if it didn’t assume homophobia–that is, if it didn’t depend on the notion that it’s a disaster for a straight to be mistaken for gay. These critics have a valid point. But there are at least two counter-points. One is that motivation matters, and I don’t think you can make a convincing case that Visa is out to court bigots with this ad. Two is that I think you can make a reasonable case that it’s homophobia that really gets mocked here, not homosexuality, and that the same is true in the Heineken ad. All of that said, I don’t think the Visa spot is exactly gay-friendly or worthy of applause, either. It’s kind of sophomoric. The ad is more intriguing and arguably more ground-breaking because a) the kid is actually gay, and b) it’s Dad’s bigotry that’s out of step with the norm and needs to be brought into line.

The grades: Sexual orientation issues aside, do the spots work? The Giggo ad is in keeping with a campaign that emphasizes, through various situations in which an expected negative outcome is transformed to a positive, the general idea of control: Just as these characters control whatever pickle they’re in, so can you control the process of buying a car. This is a weak gimmick, so despite its progressive worldview, the ad gets a C. The Visa spot I find slightly less funny and more ideologically suspect but more effective in making a point about the underlying product. So I give it a B.

Now, what does all of this say about the relationship between gays and big advertisers? Obviously the days of simply ignoring gay and lesbian consumers have faded fast, and we’ll continue to see advertisers stumble around the issue, sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so. To the extent that ad culture is a barometer of culture in general, this seems like a net plus: It’s better than pretending homosexuality doesn’t exist or is somehow too embarrassing or controversial to mention. Why has this change happened? Well, this isn’t really the right place to take up the argument about whether the popular notion of the affluent gay is true or a myth, but earlier this year a friend of mine forwarded to me an interesting letter she’d gotten from a public relations person: The pitch was for a story about the effectiveness of advertising on demographically targeted portal sites, such as one site frequented by gays and lesbian consumers–who, the letter noted in passing, are “known for loyalty and excessive spending.” Ah well, so much for the notion of a new enlightenment in the marketing community.