50 Gayest Ads List shows brands’ rocky journey

MaryLou Costa is a key member of the Marketing Week features team and her blog brings her unique Australian perspective to brands. She also oversees the Market Research Focus weekly bulletin.

US website AdWeek’s 50 Gayest Ads List shows how shock factors and stereotypes are hardly innovative, but really creative ideas can make an impact

To coincide with Gay Pride month, Adweek.com has put together what it calls “The 50 Gayest Ads Ever” dating all the way back from 1995.

The portfolio is a mix of cheesy and cringeworthy to genuinely clever and impactful. Some show well-used storylines that have become slightly old hat but are still trotted out because they raise a laugh, while others use gay characters for pure shock tactics with what looks like little interest in the gay community itself.

While interesting work has come from not for profit organisations championing gay issues and rights, brands who also make a connection with a cause probably stand more of a chance of reaching this market.

At any rate, these 50 ads document the journey marketers and brands have been on and are still a long way from completing.

Author David Griner has categorised the 50 into seven categories that highlight some eye opening story telling techniques, let down by their counterparts who use gay as a shameless attention grabbing tool.

The categories are:

1. Surprise – the character is gay. This seems to be one that is very commonly used by brands and agencies, where the twist at the end is the main character is gay, shock horror. This has the ability to raise a smile, as in the Volkswagen video where an over enthusiastic woman comes to greet her new neighbour presuming they are a family based on the VW minivan parked in their drive – until two men come to the door.

This might have once been a way for a brand to gain kudos not only in the gay community but to provide comic relief to  its wider audience, but to me this is now fast becoming a faded token gesture; a cheap trick.

2. Coming out. This is a storyline that is less used but some brands have shown that told sensitively, can move audiences and show a brand to be inclusive and caring. For example, McDonalds’ French piece showing a teenage boy wanting to tell his dad about his (male) school crush is very poignant. However, Vodafone using coming out as a vehicle for driving an increased minutes offering falls under the cheap trick umbrella to me.

3. Swings both ways. I agree with Griner when he says most of these ads show “bisexuals as opportunistic sex fiends” which has the power to upset more than entertain. However, condom brand Durex managed to crack it by using humour – and promiscuous condom balloon animals – to promote safe sex.

4. Actually straight – where characters being gay is a metaphor for something else, such as Heinz’s controversial deli mayo ad which wasn’t really showing a family with two dads but more how Heinz is bringing the taste of a real deli into your house. It also uses gay as a punchline, for example, the Virgin Atlantic ad which depicts a gay relationship only for it to be the dream/nightmare of an uncomfortable passenger. I would say this is dangerous ground for brands as I can imagine many members of the gay community would object to being used as a metaphor or punchline.

5. Lesbians as a hot male fantasy – same as category 3, where erotic images in a way that some would argue is exploitative and has nothing to do with being gay but to be shockingly sexy. This would probably work on some people but I wouldn’t classify it as legitimately marketing to the gay community.

6. Activists. As shown here, there is an opportunity for marketers within not for profit organisations to create some really impactful work. Two ads that stick in my mind are not shown in this article, but that I’ve seen recently are from Google Chrome showing how the internet can offer support to young gay people coming out; and from an organisation encouraging people to stop using the word “gay” as a negative descriptor akin to “rubbish”. Both make you sit up and listen.

It shows the opportunity for brands to engage consumers by connecting with a cause – one they believe in, of course. Johnnie Walker and Swedish fashion brand Bjorn Borg have both created TV ads where the storyline promotes gay marriage, something that is always topical.

And finally, 7, the holy grail – inclusive. Griner says this is the most controversial and can be boring, but I think using gay characters in standard messaging is the most inclusive a brand can be as opposed to using a gay storyline. Lloyds TSB’s work doesn’t feature here but simply substituting a gay couple for the typical married man and woman looking for a home loan was something that went a long way.

I’m no expert in this field – I’m not even gay – and I certainly don’t envy marketers who must navigate the consumer landscape in terms of gender, nationality, race, language and now sexuality. But these 50 ads show there is a big difference in actually engaging with the gay community and simply using a gay storyline for a cheap thrill.

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