Gap did something interesting this week: it unveiled a new ad featuring a same-sex couple (or models posing as a same-sex couple; it's not entirely clear) (UPDATE: It is a gay couple! Tony nominee Rory O'Malley and his boyfriend Gerold Schroeder, to be precise) on a billboard at a prominent Los Angeles intersection. Gap is struggling to revamp its image and recently parted ways with its longtime advertising agency. Although the jury's still out on whether the company will be able to turn itself around after years of poor sales and lackluster merchandise, including gay people in its ads seems like a good change.
Gap is hardly the first clothing company to put a same-sex couple in one of its ads. J.C. Penney, which has already stood up to the ire of conservative pressure groups by standing by its spokesperson Ellen DeGeneres, photographed a lesbian couple and their daughter for its Mother's Day catalog this year. Abercrombie & Fitch included a same-sex kiss in an online video earlier this year — though it later disavowed the clip. Last year, J. Crew shot one of its designers and his boyfriend for a catalog. Levi's has run campaigns that feature models playing both lesbian and gay couples. And as can be seen from these print ads for Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, at the high end of the market, designers don't exactly shy away from homoerotic themes.
In fact, fashion seems to be one of the few industries that makes an effort to include gays and lesbians in its advertising. When was the last time you saw a gay person in a U.S. ad for a car? This one ran in Canada in 2008.
And this McDonald's spot is cute and doesn't even make that big of a deal about how this kid happens to be gay. It aired in France in 2010.
Here in the U.S., where lesbians are present in mainstream advertising, they are likely just being used to sell the product via titillation. Witness this ad for Miller, the point of which seems to be "Lesbians...Sex...Beer!"
That truly next-level technique also works for bisexuals and chewing gum.
And where sexy lesbian sex won't sell your product, of course there's always that old standby, the heteronormative twist ending. Order is restored, bro.
When you see gay characters featured in U.S. ads in a positive light (or portrayed in a way that doesn't reduce them to their sex lives), chances are you're watching not an ad but a PSA. Like this one, which aired in 2001, for GLAAD. (CommercialCloset.org, the site linked in this spot, still serves as an archive of gay-related advertising collected by GLAAD from around the world. It's a fascinating resource to poke around. And it's where I found most of these ads.)
And of course there was this tear-jerker of a pro-same-sex marriage ad from Australia, produced last year.
Given angry U.S. fringe groups (like the so-called One Million Moms, who opposed DeGeneres' J.C. Penney contract) are able to generate weeks of talkback outrage over something as innocent as, say, a picture in a clothing catalog of a little boy with painted toenails, it's not surprising that few big companies (outside of fashion) are willing to include gay characters in their ads. But the lack of representation leaves weird gaps in the discourse.