The commercial conundrum: dissolving or embracing queerness

When we’re constantly defining new identities and it’s core to our sense of self to play with these, can’t we be more ambitious for advertising and the narratives the industry is creating?

To ‘(dis)solve’ or ‘embrace’ queerness: LGBT role models and advertisers’ commercial conundrum

An essay contribution 

I used to pride myself on being advertisers’ worst nightmare, immune to their behavioural prods. This doesn’t come from a snobbish place. My default mode is to wait for adverts to end, arms crossed. Call it a habit, I guess.

I watch adverts selling the latest hatchback or convertible car with narrowed eyes. After all, I don’t drive. I’m sceptical anyone is impressionable enough to purchase a car because it performs gymnastic moves on a narrow mountain pass. I watch adverts selling cologne and think as long as I smell clean, that’s all I need to worry about. However funky the music playing in the background or sexy the celebrity fronting an ad, I’m yet to be persuaded I need to buy aftershave.

It’s the adverts that speak to my basest impulses I work hardest to resist, to drink cola for example, or to chomp on a hot dog. No amount of melting butter, rising sourdough bread or caramelized chocolate sees me yield. We’re always told ‘sex sells’ and much as I admire men who work out, I resent Levis or Wrangler believing I might buy a pair of jeans because a model sporting the latest line boasts tight abs. They’re right of course, but that’s hardly the point! When a bank or utilities company masks its need to make a profit with moral concerns about the state of the world, I invariably turn the channel. If I’m in the cinema I mutter under my breath, ‘well, that’s a pile of crap.’

In February, Storm Ciara blew in and something changed. I settled into my cinema seat and shielded myself from the wind and the rain. I was hoping to catch a preview of No Time to Die, all the while thinking, ‘I’ve no time for these ads.’ It was wet outside, so there was a reservoir of scorn to draw on. I waited for the curtain to rise on the Academy Award-winner, Parasites, and to be blunt, I visualised the advertising agencies parasitically clinging to my wallet, waiting for my credit card to reveal itself. Here to Solve from British Gas then flashed up.

Here to help, or just tick a box?

Filmed from a first-person perspective, I was invited to watch a sequence of disasters befalling a pair of housemates in a kitchen with mod cons. Here was the lasagne dish the housemates were removing from the oven – oh no – they’ve dropped it on the floor! Their sports kit has shrivelled up in the laundry. And here’s one of the housemates slurping a cup of black coffee as they rush out of the house to work. So far, so routine, I was chuckling to myself.

Soon, though, I found myself absorbed. The production values were remarkably resonant with my own dyspraxic view of the world. They also played into my egocentric take on life, that it’s only my kitchen that sees the washing machine pack up, the refrigerator on the blink and thewaste disposal unit get clogged – all in the space of a month. Something else started to subtly reveal itself in a night-time black-out. The ordinary guys at the centre of the advert weren’t housemates, but a same-sex couple, dressed like Ernie and Bert in matching grandpa pyjamas. My various emotions were being summoned, as if to court. I was being called on. How as a gay man would I respond?

Here were two white, middle-class, gay men sharing their domestic woes with the cinema-going public. Granted, this was a peculiar audience, prepared to rise early on a Sunday morning to watch a film in Korean. For once, I was willing to watch an advert speak to me direct. I was the demographic being targeted and I was prepared to suspend judgement.

Even as the film began, I was reflecting on what British Gas was trying to say. I intellectualised my response and waited for my emotions to harden before I gave them any credence. Why cast a couple of men to portray a gay couple, for all I know played by straight actors? I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were a proxy to deliver a deeper message, that British Gas is sexy, British Gas is cool, British Gas isn’t what you think it is. A more prosaic reading of the ad is that the two men, like millions of customers, share a need for reliable plumbing and British Gas is here to fix their waterworks (as well as their electrics and gas). I’m sure that’s how many people responded if indeed they followed the advert at all, munching on their popcorn.

I felt frustrated. The conceit seemed to be a prop to drive home the relevance of British Gas.  Then I felt resigned that of course more companies want to feature gay people in mainstream advertising. We’ve long been pursued for our ‘pink pound’ and even the oldest and stodgiest of brands are now catching on. British Gas seemed to be saying ‘we’re here for every conceivable family, every household that lines Britain’s country lanes and city terraces.’ I exited the cinema suitably impressed by Bong Joon-ho’s filmmaking, but I continued pondering British Gas’s intentions.

Another conflicting emotion that stirred was disappointment. The gay couple were only revealed to be a couple in the dimmest moonlight – in shadow – when the electrics had failed. It reminded me of an old Lloyds ad that featured a gay couple; one of them proposes to his partner. Instead of enjoying a full-on kiss they end up cuddling the way you might see a young man cuddle his aunt. I try not to get offended when an ad has the right intentions, but the Lloyds ad isn’t and won’t be the only example that has the effect of dissolving gay men’s queerness.

There’s no pleasing some people, and I admit, when it comes to depictions of gay life in advertising, I’m hard to please. There’s a strong impulse to ‘relax’, to get off my liberal-left ‘high-horse’ and feel proud, relieved even, that gay people are represented in mainstream advertising. So when LGBT role models are represented, I want to feel actively engaged. I don’t expect my personal lifestyle and values to be mirrored – not exactly – but an advert should resonate with me more than most that appear on my screen. When adverts are executed clumsily, however, dissolving rather than embracing LGBT lifestyles and queerness, I wonder why the companies promoting a product even bothered.

           However, the Here to solve ad has affected something in me. I’m increasingly hooked into ads when they feature people like me: not to buy anything, but at least in terms of my attention being diverted. Who knows whether that’s a yardstick of success in the advertising industry, but I have increasingly noticed or at least sought out examples of gay relationships in marketing and adverts. Interestingly, when I researched the Here to solve series of ads, the story I told myself was corroborated; British Gas was indeed looking to broaden its appeal and in doing so, it was determined to show it was inclusive.

There are multiple ways of interpreting blue-chip or multinational companies’ depiction of same-sex relationships, perhaps as a means of enhancing their own metropolitan credentials, or simply as an over-due acknowledgement of the diversity of their customer base. Either way, there is a debate to be had about how LGBT consumers themselves respond to these advertising tactics.

Do we – and there’s a debate to be had about who the collective ‘we’ is here – find it affirming to see ourselves’ featured in such prominent adverts? Or conversely, do we believe we are being used in mainstream advertising as convenient tools, to make companies more relatable and ‘human’ at a time of intense market competition? Worse, do we consider the heteronormative depiction of gays in settled – dare I say it, boring relationships – to be another act that diminishes our queerness?

Where are the other gays?

It’s all very well featuring us as kind and decent human beings who like to invite heterosexual friends round for dinner, but what’s being lost in this act of cleansing queerness? For me at least, I worry about the commoditization of gays in relationships as much as the products advertisers are looking to sell. Are single gays worthy of any attention? Where’s the advert selling spearmint chewing gum to guys who want to have a quick hook-up from Grindr, the dating platform?

To hammer the point, gays aren’t uniform – that’s what I mean by ‘queerness’ – difference is not only biological or constructed, but more to the point, it’s to be celebrated. It’s arguably not in advertisers’ interest, but do they intend to show gays with scarce socio-economic opportunities and resources? Adverts from Tesco and McDonalds have featured ‘ordinary’ gay men in recent years’, which in a sense is to be welcomed, but we could strive for greater diversity still. Will gays with mental health problems get a look in (52% of LGBT people experienced depression in the last year said a Stonewall survey in November 2018)? There’s an entire family of LGBTQI brothers and sisters out there and many more besides who don’t define as ‘he’ or ‘she’, but ‘they’ and ‘them’?

And what of the companies and the advertising agencies they employ? What are their motives in increasingly making their stories revolve around LGBT archetypes and personalities? It doesn’t take long to come across ads, like the British Gas one, of gays in their kitchen, one wearing oven gloves and the other setting the table. When you trawl through archives on the Ad Respect website you see how for decades now, many of these played to a very safe stereotype of two middling men, in the middle of their kitchen, or in the case of the 1994 iconic Ikea ad in the US, in the middle of a furniture showroom. An early 2020 ad from Wayfair in the US hardly needs singer Kelly Clarkson to make a guest appearance. The ad also features two gay men – you guessed it, in a kitchen – waiting for a new storage unit.

Mainstream advertising no doubt influences LGBT identities with so much of its focus on genteel, same-sex domesticity. We’re here and we’re queer, so we may as well be held in advertisers’ warm embrace. Since there’s a perception we have money to spend, I feel we’re being buttered up to buy into an Eisenhower-aged vision of ‘the good life’, where there’s a social imperative to purchase the latest ‘reliable’ goods that ‘reliable’ people need and use. However inadvertent, this social conditioning – an idealized form of ‘domestic life’, if I can call it that – feels unhealthy when LGBT individuals don’t neatly fit into boxes. When we’re constantly defining new identities and it’s core to our sense of self to play with these, can’t we be more ambitious for advertising and the narratives the industry is creating?

Well, we’ve all heard about the pink dollar and how valuable it is. Even in China, 2017 estimates from Euromonitor suggest the country is home to 70 million LGBT people. The ‘pink economy’ is worth $300billion a year. Appealing to us based on the size of our wallets is a tried and trusted tactic. In an uncertain economic climate, why should advertisers attempt anything different? I was impressed to learn a new advert in China by Tmall, a shopping site, recently featured a gay couple in an advert timed for the Lunar New Year. One of the men introduced his partner to his parents and in an account of how the ad has performed by Inkstand news, the clip has racked up «thousands of views and a wave of support on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter». The family appeared economically comfortable, with the young gay couple wearing fashionable clothes, but this is genuine progress. It deserves to be celebrated.

So too should an ad delivered in early 2020 for Starbucks. It thoughtfully addressed the issues faced by a young person working through their sex and gender identity. ‘Every name’s a story’ by the agency, Iris, is to my mind, well-researched.

We’ve all seen tokenistic ads, some of which raise a laugh, but this one from Starbucksis anything but.

What’s being sold, exactly?

There are other considerations. One of these is whether the product being sold is ethical, no matter how its packaged. For all the positivity surrounding Starbucks’ ad, in the end we’re still being advertised questionably-sourced coffee. However deft advertisers are at appealing to our queer sensibilities, perhaps LGBT people like any customers, need to reject certain products. It was all very well the Hallmark channel in the US running an ad of two women kissing at their wedding, but after the ad came under sustained attack from campaigns group, One Million Moms, Hallmark took the cowardly decision to pull it. One senior executive claimed the decision to run the ad was an accident. This doesn’t come without consequences, as Hallmark soon realised – celebrities such as Ellen de Generes soon took to Twitter. When presented with an ad of male hands touching, an executive at Nivea is recently reported to have claimed the famous brand doesn’t ‘do’ gay. Do we as an LGBT community have a responsibility to educate and if necessary, boycott, certain chains or services that don’t have our interests at heart? It depends on whether the premise holds up, whether indeed there’s a definable LGBT community that can, or even wants to collaborate.

I am many things, but I’m the first person to complain if all people concern themselves with is my sexual orientation. For all my sins, I’m a Tottenham Hotspur fan. I’m a Capricorn, I love to travel. Surely, I can be advertised to across many platforms, targeted using multiple techniques. By the same token, I have to accept and be gracious when advertising doesn’t work, or messes things because it can’t fulfil my many diverse needs and preferences. I must accept when advertisers try new things and make genuine mistakes. I should highlight when companies take risks that benefit the LGBT community. McCains fries continued defending their ad featuring two gay Dads, even when homophobes said it angered them to see the pair pictured with their baby. How many of us are weighing up the positives, as well as the negatives?

Jeff Ingold, Head of Media Engagement at Stonewall when interviewed for this article, told me: ‘The advertising industry has made great progress towards including LGBT people over the years with groups like Outvertising help lead the way. Diverse representation in advertising is vital in allowing everyone, including LGBT people, to see themselves reflected in what they see around them, and know they have a place in the world.’ For all the progress being made, I still feel mainstream advertisers can’t be complacent. They’re not getting it right nearly enough.

Ingold added, ‘LGBT people are often under- or misrepresented in mainstream media. We know that we still need greater and more diverse representations of LGBT people in advertising, with lesbians, bi and trans people still missing generally. When companies start becoming LGBT-inclusive in their advertising, it’s important this is done in an authentic way which reflects real lives and experiences, not stereotypes or caricatures.

In a world where it’s hardly worth saying anything for fear complaints will overwhelm your ability to respond, advertising agencies run a gauntlet. I respect that. When the companies who back these agencies (and those who don’t) fall foul of the Twitterati, I picture the seemingly impossible bridge people in the industry have to cross. Advertising’s a tough world. But so too at times is being queer, and for all the shadiness of editing a gay couple so they barely seem gay at all, I welcome British Gas’s recent campaign. Like other household names, British Gas are embracing queerness, however slowly. They’re solving decades’ worth of queer invisibility in advertising and for that they’re to be applauded. Let’s just hope we see many more depicitions of queers, be it in bed, outdoors and if need be, in the middle of a kitchen. And lets also hope when we see LGBT role models, we really do see them – with the electrics working.