A conspicuous consumer (Scout) on the catch-22 of queer-friendly advertising campaigns.
Watching antiquated Public Service Announcements and guidance films gives me a thrill. Most recently, I uncovered a gem from Inglewood, California (one of the final bastions of racism and homophobia). The short film warns young boys to be wary of homosexuals.
And I watched this feverishly, like a dog that has dug up a stick to chew on or a feminist who has found a poorly-written spiel defending men’s rights. I can rage and ruminate to my heart’s content. And I can be sure that the Inglewood Police Department or the late producer of “Boys Beware” Sid Davis will not put up a fight from beyond the grave.
But my foray into the fascinating world of duck-and-cover, sunglasses and bow ties brought me squarely to Mad Men territory. And I began to explore the portrayal of homosexuality in advertising. Here are a few notable campaigns.
Guinness’ 1995 “Black & White”, Ogilvy & Mather
McDonald’s 2010 “Venez commes vous êtes” (“Come as you are”), BET Euro RSCG
There was Target.
There was GAP.
And, of course, there was, is and will always be IKEA.
The idea that the consumer can and should reward good behaviour with patronage is not new. The queer rights movement has historically relied on its spending power to engineer social change. In 1973, queer rights Harvey Milk created the Castro Village Association, which brought together gay-owned businesses to form an economic bloc on Castro Street. In order to thrive and survive, members of the opposing Eureka Valley Merchants Association, had to cater their businesses to Milk’s burgeoning support base.
Essentially, the gay community of San Francisco determined which businesses would sink or swim. This is using market forces to change attitudes at its best. And change comes incrementally, painstakingly. I am very happy to be respected as a potential consumer. Perhaps back in 1995, when Guinness’ television spot was pulled from broadcast and the company suffered a consumer backlash, it could be said that promoting same-sex relationships in advertising was a daring move. But in this day and age – when gay men are considered a status symbol – I would prefer if the company trying to sell products to me and “my people” would refrain from claiming any moral high ground.
I concede that every positive image of a same-sex couple broadcast to the mainstream goes some way to normalising homosexuality. It tells the ordinary Joes and Janes at home that the queers aren’t so different after all. In fact, they’re just living around the corner in an Ikea-styled townhouse with a Volvo and a small child with perfect. They go to soccer matches with sliced oranges in Tupperware containers. They saved up for a big white wedding. Be rest assured, those who flock to the “As Seen On TV” shelves at Woolworths, being gay is not even a big deal any more.
But I think we’ve lost something. We have mistaken congruity for equality. It is beyond our capabilities to reason that; two different things can be equally legitimate and beautiful. Why is it that only heterosexual relationships can be unique? Not all same-sex couples are polite, intelligent, well-groomed, functional Moms and Dads. They can be as varied and intricate as there are cells in the body and hairs on the head. They can be artists, insurance agents, Portlandia hipsters or loud, well-oiled men with a Little Italy bouffant. To reduce all same-sex relationships to an ersatz nuclear family does little to encourage sexual diversity. It says “IT’S OK TO BE GAY, AS LONG AS YOU ACT STRAIGHT”. It screams “YOUR RELATIONSHIP MUST MIRROR A HETERO-NORMATIVE IDEAL TO BE RECOGNISED.”
It could be argued that these campaigns undermine the stereotypes surrounding homosexuals. But I would contend that they’re simply replacing the public image of gay men from the 1960s and 1970s – subversive, alienated and insecure orphan-like characters – with an airbrushed descendant from the 2010s – stylish, intelligent and responsible father figures.
What hasn’t changed is that the “homosexual” fits seamlessly into the background. Out of sight. Out of mind. Positive stereotypes are merely gilded pigeonholes. And they can still do damage.
One of the hidden harms of promoting same-sex couples as idyllic, happy families, is erasing any evidence of domestic abuse or sexual assault. A paper published by University of New South Wales illustrates the undercurrent of domestic violence in same-sex relationships. “The silence around violence in same-sex relationships is reinforced by the fear that acknowledging it may feed societal homophobia and contribute to prejudice about gay or lesbian relationships.” Explains Carrie Chan, Senior Researcher at Australian Domestic and Family Violence Institute. She highlights “The four most common misconceptions about same-sex domestic violence as the following:
- An outbreak of gay male domestic violence is logical, but lesbian domestic violence does not occur (because women are not prone to violence).
- Same-sex partner violence is not as severe as when a woman is abused by a man.
- Because the partners are of the same gender, it is mutual abuse.
- The perpetrator must be the ‘man’ or the ‘butch’ and the victim must be the ‘woman’ or the ‘femme’.”
It’s a mother of a Catch-22. On the one hand, both partners are carbon copies of each other; so it is impossible for one to abuse the other. Conversely, in order to be in a legitimate union, they must emulate the traditional dynamics of heterosexual relationships; thus the ‘man’ abuses the ‘woman’. There is no pride, only silence, in domestic violence.
We are terrified to admit that same-sex partners can be just as dysfunctional and dangerous as their heterosexual counterparts. For the sake of achieving “equality”, we have erased the beauty and the ugliness inherent in queer relationships.
To while away the hours with a greater archive of queer friendly advertising, visit Ad Respect.
For more information on same-sex domestic violence, peruse this ACON (AIDS Council of NSW) fact sheet or Another Closet.