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Commercial Closet Association

Mainstream/B2B Advertising Best Practices

To view the commercials referenced below, visit CommercialCloset.org.

Advertising seeks to sell, not offend. Over the years, hundreds of commercials have referred to GLBT people, yet companies rarely consider what messages they send. While it may seem difficult today not to upset someone, few groups are ridiculed as often and openly as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people. Today, "diversity" and "multicultural" mean more than just ethnicity and gender -- they include "sexual orientation" and "gender expression." But corporations have not adapted to keep general marketing communications in line with rapidly changing social attitudes of Consumers, Businesses, Investors and Employees.

-The general population and media are increasingly aware of diversity and uncomfortable with messages lacking sensitivity. Over 90% of Americans know someone gay, and 42% of heterosexuals would be less likely to buy a product advertised on an anti-gay program. Viacom/MTV will launch a 24-hour gay channel in 2005, primetime TV has featured up to 30 gay characters, the Supreme Court confirmed gay protections, and same-sex marriage is law in Massachusetts, Canada and overseas.

-Big business increasingly protects its gay employees from discrimination (80% of Fortune 500), offers equal benefits (25% of Fortune 500), and explores gay marketing (33% of Fortune 100).

-Friends, family, and colleagues of GLBT people
are vocal and sensitive to diversity issues.

-GLBT people represent 4%-10% of the population (8.4 million to 21 million American adults), and belong to every family and work for every company. Such individuals vary in color, age, religion, national origin, gender expression, ability, politics, profession, and class. About 1.2 million reported to the 2000 U.S. Census they are partnered in rural areas, suburbs and cities, and 1 in 5 have children.

This document is a tool to assist executives (gay and straight) to create effective, inclusive mainstream and business-to-business advertising that is respectful of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people, while promoting creativity, sales and image goals. Drawing upon reporting observations, trial, and analysis from industry leaders, Commercial Closet Association recommends the following five points:

1.) Be inclusive and diverse. Whenever people are shown, include GLBT individuals/family members/friends/couples, reflecting varied ages, races, genders, etc. Language references to family, relationships or gender should not be hetero-centric.

POSITIVE EXAMPLES: Class reunion mentions people who 'came out' (John Hancock, 2001). Men and women want M&M girl (Mars, 1999). Three couples (gay, lesbian, straight) fight and make up (MTV, 2000). Gay youth talks about being disliked (Levi, 1998). Gay couples as business partners (American Express, 1999. IBM, 1998).

2.) Be sensitive to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender stereotypes and avoid positioning homosexuality/transgender as a perceived threat for humor. Advertising often stereotypes, but beware of complications. Feminine gay men and deceitful/scary transgender people are old ideas that alienate many. Straight-male-fantasy "lipstick lesbians" are narrow clichés.

A spokesman in a jail jokes about not bending over or being left alone in a cell with a man. (7UP, 2002) A cable TV installer is slapped on the rear by a football player, then dashes for the front door. (DirecTV, 2001) A taxi drops a man off in the wrong place, a threatening transsexual approaches. (Adidas, 1999)

3.) Do good research. When conducting general research or forming new mainstream campaigns, GLBT perspectives should be considered and included as often as possible. Don't limit their input only to gay-targeted messages.

Subaru surveyed its consumers and found a strong lesbian base. Miller Brewing finds what distinguishes its consumers is open-mindedness to diversity. A 2000 Heineken commercial referring to homosexuality is tested with gays.

4.) Go national. Consumers outside of major coastal cities are often improperly considered lacking sophistication to handle GLBT themes.

POSITIVE EXAMPLES: Women flirt with a gay man, aired on network sports (Miller Lite, 2001). Two women adopt a baby, aired on Olympics and World Series (John Hancock, 2000). Gay worker featured in industry trade magazine (Ford Motor, 2001).

5.) Be consistent and confident. Modifying or withdrawing ads suggests waffling and creates further trouble. Respond to criticism with business rationales, like diversity and the bottom line. Avoid time-restricted airings of material unless ads legitimately deal with sexual situations inappropriate to youth.

NEGATIVE EXAMPLES: John Hancock ad edited to obscure female couple (2000). McCormick Grill Mates male-male kiss removed (2000). IKEA male couple that does not touch aired only after 9:30 p.m. (1994).

Gays & Lesbians: how do you represent them without stereotypes or clichés? Try using:
a.) Real gay or lesbian individuals. Authenticity goes a long way.
b.) Openly gay celebrities or athletes.
c.) Same-sex pairings in everyday situations, such as at home, driving, shopping, eating.
d.) Same-sex pairings with physical affection.
e.) Sexuality can be referenced through verbal, text, graphical, or anthropomorphic mentions.
f.) Unexpected twists, counter time-worn clichés, and add other humor sources.
g.) A mix of masculine/feminine pairings for men or women as couples or friends: butch-femme (men or women), femme-femme (men), butch-butch (women).

Positive Examples: A.) Nike features an openly gay HIV-positive runner. (1995) American Express pictures a female couple on the beach, and a male couple who own a small dog biscuit business. (1998, 1999) IBM presents a male business couple in its "Mom & Pop" ad, Barney's gay designer Simon Doonan, and pictures some of its gay employees. (1998, 2003) (see True Stories)
B.) Martina Navratilova represents Subaru. (2000) Cartier celebrates the commitment ceremony of openly gay rock star Melissa Etheridge and her partner with a $4,000 bracelet. (2003) Chili's restaurants features retired openly gay football star Esera Tuaolo. (2003) Pier 1 Imports signs up "Queer Eye" star Thom Filicia as a spokesman. (2003) (see Famous Faces, Sports Stars)
C.) The ACLU shows a military man getting ready for work, with his male partner in the background. (2001-02) Two men drive together for Avis Rent-A-Car. (2002-03) Two boys ride on a Ferris wheel together for Diet Vanilla Coke. (2003) (see Couples, Gay Families/Kids)
D.) A model and body builder male couple, posed as sailors, kiss passionately in front of a battle ship for Diesel. (1994) Several same-sex couples kiss and embrace at home, wearing Dolce & Gabbana. (1999) A female couple sit at home, one is pregnant for Fleet Bank. (1999) A male couple marries for DuPont's Sustiva. (2001) Bristol-Myers Squibb depicts two men moving into a new home. (2003) (see Affectionate Displays, Male Kisses/Female Kisses)
E.) Holiday Inn pictures two pairs of men's shoes below a bed. (2002) Sundance Channel shows paper dolls, boy-boy and girl-girl. (2003) (see Anthropomorphic/Personification)
F.) A transgender woman with a secret reveals she has astigmatism for Focus/Novartis contact lenses (1996) Two macho young men use power tools to make a skate half-pipe then kiss for MTV (2001) (see Stereotype Twists)
G.) Two women with shaved heads rub noses for Mercedes. (2001)

Bisexuals are rarely shown at all, but when they are it is usually as duplicitous cheaters. How do you avoid that problem? Try using:
a.) Depictions without a defined relationship to another person, keep it ambiguous.
b.) References through verbal, text, graphical, or anthropomorphic mentions.

Positive Examples: A.) Banana Republic pictures a man embraced by a man and woman, each with their hands on his chest. (1993) Amstel Light shows a woman's knees caressed by a man and woman on either side of her. (2002)
B.) Pepsi features a man announce to a crowd that he is bisexual. (2001) Airbus has classic pairs, like Romeo & Juliet, split by a third name, to promote two-seat-wide rows. (2003) With two flavors, Altoids asks readers if they're "Bi-Curious." (2003)

Transgender is an umbrella term covering a range of identities: female-to-males/M2F, female-to-males/F2M, drag queens, "bad drag," transsexuals, transvestites and androgyny. Most common in advertising are male-to-females, who typically show up as "deceptive" if they pass as women, or "frightening" if they do not. "Bad drag" refers to intentionally unconvincing straight men half-dressed as women, for example wearing wigs and mustaches simultaneously, as a joke or with a mock-subversive motive like spying. Transvestites are depicted as heterosexual men "caught" cross-dressing in women's undergarments. Drag queens are portrayed as campy men impersonating women. Transsexuals have had a sex-change operation. Female-to-males and androgyny are rarely depicted in advertising.

Why not try:
a.) Incorporating transgender people in everyday situations, not as a punch line, but with acceptance as a twist.
b. ) Using a real transgender person, or real female impersonator. Seek authenticity.
c.) Depicting male-to-females/F2M individuals, masculine/butch women and "drag kings."

Positive Examples:
A.) IKEA depicts a transitioning woman in the hospital, she later goes shopping. (1999) Prudential features a drag performer in a nightclub. (2001) Calvin Klein shows a shirtless man wearing a long wig. (2001) McDonald's includes a man donning drag. (2003)
B.) Fox Broadcasting uses Los Angeles drag queen Karen Dior to promote Fox Sports West. (1996) Baileys Irish Cream, MAC cosmetics, and Virgin Cola feature RuPaul. (both 1995, 1998) Palgantong Fania cosmetics in Korea widely feature M2F transgender model Harisu. (2001-02)
C.) Kenar supermodel Linda Evangelista "kisses" herself dressed in male drag. (1997)

1.) Senior executives should visibly endorse and disseminate the Best Practices to all appropriate internal marketing and supporting ad agency staffs.
2.) Because of the diversity of the GLBT community, GLBT focus groups are encouraged for guidance -- avoid limiting to just one or two GLBT individuals. Gay consultants and agencies are recommended for in-depth feedback and targeted efforts.
3.) Prepare consistent responses to media and consumer inquiries about the campaign.
4.) Schedule professional, annual sensitivity and awareness training about GLBT issues for general advertising and marketing staffs.

Specific data is difficult to come by, as companies rarely share proprietary information. But many marketers have repeatedly incorporated GLBT themes into mainstream ads: Viacom (48), Unilever (21), IKEA (14), Levi Strauss (14), Volkswagen (14), Virgin Group (10), Coca-Cola Co. (9), Heineken (8), Polaroid (4), Hyundai (3), Hancock (2), Visa (2).

To view the above-mentioned commercials, click here.

About Commercial Closet
Commercial Closet is a resource compendium of years of reporting on approaches that have and haven't worked, research, consumer feedback and input from marketing, advertising, media and education leaders, and 2,000 video and print ad samples.

The project is led by a board of marketing, media and advertising professionals. Project founder-veteran journalist Michael Wilke began covering gay marketing at its nascence over a decade ago. He has written for Advertising Age, Brandweek, along with The New York Times, The Advocate and other publications. He has appeared extensively on network TV.


Michael Wilke, Commercial Closet Association

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