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When Intentions Fall Between the Lines

ARE the billboards in New York advertising the Grand Can, a swivel-top, orange-pop-colored trash can, a boast about the sophistication of its design or of its buyers?

"Swings Both Ways," the ad states. It should know. It does, too.

Same-sex innuendo is showing up more and more in national advertising, and in more consumer categories, from automobiles, beer and soft drinks to home furnishings, once as lifeless in its advertised image as a period room. Inspired by the license taken by fashion advertisers, "gay vague" advertising, as marketers call it (designed to reach both gay and mainstream audiences) has become the leading edge, many in the industry say. And conveniently, where mainstream audiences see ambiguity, gay audiences see a direct sales pitch.

In Mitchell Gold furniture ads running in national magazines now, two smiling young men sit on a white sofa, with a blond little girl between them on a child's chair. A) They are college friends with a sister. B) They are an attractive couple. The girl is their daughter Dorothy. And you aren't in Kansas anymore.

The muscleman in the tight, short-sleeved business shirt pressing his knuckles into a desk, in newspaper and telephone kiosk advertisements for Dallak office furniture, is Dallak's targeted customer: young, active, sexy, fit.

And an identifiable icon for urban gay men.

"We intended to be inclusive," said Neil Schwartzberg, the president of Dallek.

"A new unsedentary image of offices.

Hard-bodied furniture for hard-bodied people."

Gay vague advertising aims at what many companies believe is an affluent gay dollar, while also displaying a casual, inclusive attitude toward same-sex issues that advertisers hope will capture younger, hip mainstream consumers.

Mainstream entertainment has paved the way. Within two months, two young male characters have shared a romantic kiss on "Dawson's Creek," before its largely teenage audience.

On HBO's "Sex and the City," Carrie, its leading character, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, dates a 26-year-old bisexual man in an episode called "Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl. . . . "

Alone, Ms. Parker's character asks herself, "Has the opposite sex become obsolete?"

Michael Draznin, an executive vice president at Lowe Lintas, an advertising agency in New York, said that the industry is using the pop-cultural climate as leverage in a new sales approach. "The advertising landscape has changed dramatically in the last year," he said. "It's not only inclusionary, but advertisers themselves are less uptight about being seen as same-sex inclusionary."

Lowe Lintas created "The Male Bonding Incident," a television spot now appearing for Heineken beer, in which two men watching sports on a living room sofa touch (and briefly hold) hands while exchanging a bottle of beer, before bouncing apart. Mr. Draznin described the ad as a humorous "spoof" of heterosexual nervousness over the intent of a same-sex contact. The ad might be gay vague, but the comic relief is explicit.

"It stands to reason that a trend is under way, and companies are jumping on the bandwagon," said Rogier van Bakel, editor of Ad Age's Creativity, an industry publication.

But, he continued, the gay imagery "is often implied -- and leaves a lot of us guessing what are they really trying to say?"

Perhaps viewers don't want it spelled out. Tyler Brûlé, the editorial director of Wallpaper, the home furnishings and fashion magazine, said that readers and colleagues in their 20's "seem less inclined to find themselves at a young age, gay or straight."

" 'Genderation inspecific' is the marketing term we've coined," he said. "They don't want to label themselves."

Mr. Brûlé depicts the ambiguity in his magazine, in stories like one in June about a beach barbecue, in which two men serenade each other while women look on.

"Our imagery is all inclusive," Mr. Brûlé said. "Boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls -- whether these people end up in bed with each other at the end of the story, we never answer."

Magazines like Wallpaper explore the idea that home furnishings can be presented as lifestyle -- with the sexual appeal of fashion or beauty products.

Brenda Saget, the publisher of House & Garden, said that home furnishing advertisers now "realize the success that fashion and beauty have had in appealing to people on a personal level, by being provocative."

"You've got to appeal to people's senses," she said. "Your Sub-Zero is as exciting as your BMW and your Rolex." Younger audiences, she said, "are choosing to go the sexy, fun route -- embracing all lifestyles and points of view." To reach them, she explained, marketers will have to be more broad-minded.

Michael Wilke, a media historian who has studied gay marketing, invented the term "gay vague" for ads like Mitchell Gold and Dallek that target both gay and mainstream audiences. Mr. Wilke, a reporter at Ad Age magazine for four years, and now a columnist at GFN, a financial services Web site, also expressed reservations.

"It has to be the right product with the right demographic. You're not going to see Procter & Gamble advertising Tide this way. But a young demographic, like Ikea's or Abercrombie & Fitch's, is more open to this kind of imagery, because it's considered cool."

After dismissing various heterosexual scenarios as too familiar, Thomas Lenthal, a creative director working with Christian Dior, helped create Dior's spring and summer advertising campaign, which pictures two women in a series of sexually charged embraces, inspired in part by images discovered in German lesbian publications.

"There's nothing sick or strange or weird," Mr. Lenthal said of the ads. "It's two really beautiful girls enjoying themselves, lesbian or not. Dior has to enter the 21st century with an image that's very young, very alive."

Despite the industry's conservative image, home furnishings, surprisingly, was the first to show a gay couple shopping together, in a television ad for Ikea in 1994. The spot was pulled after several months. The 11-segment campaign itself stayed on the air for five years.

"The gay couple got so much national press," said Linda Sawyer, the general manager at Deutsch Inc., the agency that created the ads. "It had received far greater than its fair share of media weight." Ms. Sawyer noted that the couple depicted were "regular guys," not stereotypical beefcake models.

Waterford Wedgwood began advertising in Out magazine, the gay monthly, in 1996. The campaign's generic image, two men and a woman strolling with Champagne flutes in their hands, was -- only in gay publications -- accompanied by copy that made the ad's intention clear: "It's time your crystal came out of the closet as well." A mainstream version ran without the knowing overline.

Anita Brady, vice president of marketing at Waterford, said that the demographics of Out magazine readers were appealing to her company. "They're affluent," she said. "They enjoy the home, fine entertaining, the quality of the product. We wanted to show them that Waterford was serious about them."

Mainstream advertising in gay and lesbian publications like Out increased by 29 percent in 1999, to $155.3 million, according to The Gay Press Report, a survey sponsored by Rivendell Marketing, a gay and lesbian media marketing company. The increase was led by the retail category, which was up 70 percent, and included new faces like Banana Republic and Calvin Klein. Home furnishings fell behind, with a decrease from 1998.

Sydney Bachman, senior vice president and creative director at Calvin Klein, said that budgets dictated its decisions.

Home furnishings represent 5 percent of global sales, and its advertising budget is tiny in comparison with fashion's. Home furnishings, she said, were best presented in the traditional home design magazines: the connection to fashion could be accomplished without showing people in the ads or using overtly sexual images.

"You really want to focus on the product," she said.

Mike Moore, the president of Mike, a San Francisco furniture manufacturer and retailer with $20 million in sales last year, disagreed. Mr. Moore, who is gay, published a magazine-style catalog in April that included models, including same-sex couples, in various states of undress in sparely furnished rooms.

Several of the 6,000 catalogs were returned with letters complaining that the content was offensive.

Criticism of gay vague advertising has come from expected quarters, including the Christian Action Network in Forest, Va., with 250,000 members, which is concerned that the phenomenon is on the rise, and that its vagueness will be increasingly explicit, especially on television.

For his part, Mr. Gold, of Mitchell Gold, has had criticism from his gay audience, saying that he is aiming stereotypes at them, like beefcake nudity.

Yet, he remains convinced that such ads work. "How do you get the most bang for your buck, creating ads that people will talk about, on a $40,000 annual advertising budget?" he asked.

Mr. Gold projects sales for 2000 at $70 million, a 30-percent increase over last year. He also accused the industry, in particular the High Point, N.C., core of American furniture manufacturers, of being timid -- and homophobic -- in refusing to acknowledge a significant part of their audience.

He lives nearby in Conover, N.C., with his partner, Bob Williams, the company's executive vice president and director of design.

Jay Reardon, the president of Hickory Chair in North Carolina and a colleague of Mr. Gold's, took issue and offense with his observation.

Mr. Reardon said that neither sex nor orientation was what was important about the customer.

"We focus our marketing efforts towards people who want to beautify their homes," he said.


WILLIAM L. HAMILTON, July 20, 2000, The New York Times

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.