Brow Beat

Will More Mainstream Ads Finally Start Depicting Gay Men and Women?

An ad for J.C. Penney

For Father’s Day this year, J.C. Penney released a print ad in their June catalog featuring a real-life gay couple playing with their two toddlers in the living room. It was just the latest example in a wave of mainstream advertising by national businesses portraying gap couples; other examples include Gap’s “Be One” billboard, Ray-Ban’s “Never Hide” campaign, and Urban Outfitters’ spring catalog. For years, ads that depict gay men and women have been seen almost exclusively in media targeting gay and gay-friendly audiences, but this year has seen an uptick in the number of companies and ad agencies willing to sell their products with such images. Are ads like this finally going to become mainstream?

Maybe. I spoke with Rich Ferraro, Vice President of Communications for GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). GLAAD’s annual Amplifier Awards, which honor companies that fairly portray the LGBT community (“It’s not enough to include two shirtless guys on the beach,” Ferraro says), only had a few ads to choose from in 2011. This year, there are about a dozen contenders coming from various markets, including Marriott, Chevy, and American Apparel (the last has prominently featured a transgender model in its ads).

Such a development is a long time coming. In 1994, Ikea released what is widely considered to be the first mainstream ad to feature a gay couple shopping for furniture (it only aired once and was pulled when a store received bomb threats). Eight years later, they did it again. In both instances, the ads emit a family-friendly vibe, with same-sex couples living their everyday lives. But similar examples have been hard to come by in the years since. And most such ads appeared in print media, which allows a company to target a more specified group through niche magazines and venues.

Thanks to the Internet, though, even targeted print ads are likely to reach a wider audience than a company might have intended. As Frank Bruni pointed out in writing about the J.C. Penney ads (and subsequent controversy), most people who complained probably first saw the images in the news reporting about them, rather than in the J.C. Penney catalog where they originated. TV commercials still have a ways to go toward being inclusive, Ferraro says, but much progress is being made (just last month, a gay couple was included in the first U.S. travel ad).

It’s easy to say that many of these companies are merely jumping on the bandwagon by finally recognizing the buying power of the gay community. J.C. Penney did receive quite a bit of free publicity thanks to the proliferation of its ads on the Internet and a response to the controversy from new J.C. Penney spokesperson Ellen Degeneres. Ferraro is not so cynical, however. By following through on its Mother’s and Father’s Day spots even after the Ellen flap, he says, J.C. Penney has established a committed gay-friendly stance. Starbucks and other companies that refused to rescind their support for gay marriage after consumer complaints have seen no dip in their businesses, a sign that can no doubt be encouraging to J.C. Penney. Such developments, Ferraro believes, may finally allow corporate America to catch up with the culture’s progress elsewhere.