To ‘(dis)solve’ or ‘embrace’ queerness: LGBT role models and advertisers’ commercial conundrum
I used to pride myself on being advertisers’ worst nightmare, immune to their behavioural prods. This doesn’t come from a snobbish place. My default mode is to wait for adverts to end, arms crossed. Call it a habit, I guess.
I watch adverts selling the latest hatchback or convertible car with narrowed eyes. After all, I don’t drive. I’m sceptical as to whether anyone is impressionable enough to purchase a car because it performs gymnastic moves on a narrow mountain pass. I watch adverts selling cologne and think as long as I smell clean, that’s all I need to worry about. However funky the music playing in the background or sexy the celebrity fronting an ad, I’m yet to be persuaded that I need to buy aftershave.
It’s the adverts that speak to my basest impulses I work hardest to resist, to drink cola for example, or to chomp on a hot dog. No amount of melting butter, rising sourdough bread or caramelized chocolate sees me yield. We’re always told ‘sex sells’ and much as I admire men who work out, I resent Levis or Wrangler believing I might buy a a pair of jeans because a model sporting the latest line boasts tight abs. They’re right of course, but that’s hardly the point! When a bank or utilities company masks its need to make a profit with moral concerns about the state of the world, I invariably turn the channel. If I’m in the cinema I mutter under my breath, “well, that’s a pile of crap“.
In February, Storm Ciara blew in and something changed. I settled into my cinema seat and shielded myself from the wind and the rain. I was hoping to catch a preview of No Time to Die, all the while thinking, “I’ve no time for these ads“. It was wet outside, so there was a reservoir of scorn to draw on. I waited for the curtain to rise on the Academy Award-winner, Parasite, and to be blunt, I visualised the advertising agencies parasitically clinging to my wallet, waiting for my credit card to reveal itself. Here to Solve from British Gas then flashed up.
Filmed from a first-person perspective in a kitchen with mod cons, I was invited to watch a sequence of disasters befalling a pair of housemates. Here was the lasagne dish the housemates were removing from the oven – oh no – they’ve dropped it on the floor! Their sports kit has shrivelled up in the laundry. And here’s one of the housemates slurping a cup of black coffee as they rush out of the house to work. So far, so routine, I was chuckling to myself.
Soon, though, I found myself absorbed. The production values were remarkably resonant with my own dyspraxic view of the world. They also played into my egocentric take on life that it’s only my kitchen that sees the washing machine pack up, the waste disposal unit get clogged and my refrigerator on the blink - all in the space of a month. Something else started to subtly reveal itself in a night-time black-out. The ordinary guys at the centre of the advert weren’t housemates, but a same-sex couple, dressed like Ernie and Bert in matching grandpa pyjamas. My various emotions were being summoned, as if to court. I was being called on. How as a gay man would I respond?
Here were two white, middle-class gay men sharing their domestic woes with the cinema-going public. Granted, this was a peculiar audience, prepared to rise on a Sunday morning to watch a film in Korean. Others munched their popcorn, but I started to feel more alert; the half-inch subtitles weren’t the only obstacle I was ready to cross. For once, I was willing to watch an advert speak to me direct. I was the demographic being targeted, and I was prepared to suspend judgement.
Even as the film began, I was reflecting on what British Gas was trying to say. What were they looking to tell me? Why cast a couple of men to portray a gay couple, for all I know played by straight actors? I intellectualised my response and waited for my emotions to harden before I gave them any credence. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the men were there as a proxy to deliver a deeper message, which is that British Gas is sexy, British Gas is cool, British Gas isn’t what you think it is. A more prosaic reading of the ad is that the two men, like millions of customers, share a need for reliable plumbing and British Gas is here to fix their waterworks (as well as their electricity and gas).
I was annoyed at first. I was frustrated that the conceit seemed to be a prop to drive home the relevance of British Gas. Then, I was resigned that of course more companies want to feature gay people in mainstream advertising. We’ve long been pursued for our ‘pink pound’ and even the oldest and stodgiest of brands are now catching on. British Gas seemed to be saying “we’re here for every conceivable family, every household that lines Britain’s country lanes and city terraces.“ I left the cinema suitably impressed by Bong Joon-ho’s filmmaking, but I continued pondering British Gas’s intentions.
There was a part of me saying, ‘relax’. I wanted to get off my liberal-left high-horse and simply feel proud, relieved even, that gay people were being represented in mainstream advertising. Another conflicting emotion that stirred was disappointment. The gay couple were only revealed to be a couple in the dimmest moonlight – in shadow – when the electrics had failed. It reminded me of an old Lloyds ad. There’s a gay couple and one of them proposes to his partner. Instead of enjoying a full-on kiss they end up cuddling the way you might see a young man cuddle his aunt. I try not to get offended when an ad has the right intentions, but the Lloyds ad isn’t and won’t be the only example that has the effect of dissolving gay men’s queerness.
There’s no pleasing some people. I admit, when it comes to advertising, I’m one of them. As a white, Guardian-reading man living in a same-sex relationship, I doubt I fit into many demographic boxes. I know when I’m being spoken to and when adverts are designed for someone else. I’m not sure what demographic I’m considered part of. Perhaps I’m a ‘Citizen of the World’ given my proclivity to up sticks and base myself in other countries. Perhaps I’m a London liberal or something equally reductive. Whatever I’m known as in Noho, I’m a bundle of contradictions and that’s why I think I’m the kind of person advertisers work around, rather than have any real hope of converting or convincing.
However, the Here to Solve ad has affected something in me. I am increasingly hooked into ads when they feature people like me: not to buy anything, but at least in terms of my attention being diverted. Who knows as to whether that’s a yardstick of success in the advertising industry, but I have increasingly noticed or at least sought out examples of gay relationships in marketing and adverts. Interestingly, when I researched the Here to Solve series of ads, the story I told myself was corroborated; British Gas was indeed looking to broaden its appeal and in doing so, it was determined to show it was inclusive.
There are multiple ways of interpreting blue-chip or multinational companies' depiction of same-sex relationships; perhaps as a means of enhancing their own metropolitan credentials, or simply as an over-due acknowledgement of the diversity of their customer base. Either way, there is a debate to be had about how LGBT consumers themselves respond to these advertising tactics.
Do we – and there’s a debate to be had about who this collective ‘we’ is here – find it affirming to see ourselves’ featured in such prominent adverts? Or conversely, do we believe we are being used in mainstream advertising as convenient tools, to make companies more relatable and ‘human’ at a time of intense market competition? Worse, do we consider the heteronormative depiction of gays in settled – dare I say it, boring relationships – to be another act that diminishes our queerness?
It’s all very well featuring us as kind and decent human beings who like to invite heterosexual friends round for dinner, but what’s being lost? For me at least, I worry about the commoditization of gays in relationships as much as the products advertisers are looking to sell. Are single gays worthy of any attention? Where’s the advert selling spearmint chewing gum to guys who want to have a quick hook-up from Grindr?
To hammer the point, gays aren’t all wealthy and they certainly don’t possess the same socio-economic opportunities and resources. Will gays with mental health problems get a look in (52% of LGBT people experienced depression in the last year said a Stonewall survey in November 2018)? There’s an entire family of LGBTQI brothers and sisters out there and many more besides who don’t define as ‘he’ or ‘she’, but ‘they’ and ‘them’?
And what of the companies and the advertising agencies they employ? What are their motives in increasingly making their stories revolve around LGBT archetypes and personalities? It doesn’t take long to come across ads, like the British Gas one, of gays in their kitchen, one wearing oven gloves and the other setting the table. When you trawl through archives on the Ad Respect website you see how for decades now, many of these played to a very safe stereotype of two middling men, in the middle of their kitchen, or in the case of the 1994 iconic Ikea ad in the US, in the middle of a showroom. An early 2020 ad from Wayfair in the US hardly needs singer Kelly Clarkson to make a guest appearance. The ad also features are two gay men – you guessed it, in a kitchen – waiting for a new storage unit. Isn’t that enough?
Mainstream advertising no doubt influences LGBT identities with so much focus on genteel, same-sex domesticity. We’re here and we’re queer, so we may as well be held in advertisers’ warm embrace. Perhaps this isn’t new, but since we’re not disposable and we have money to spend, I feel we’re being buttered up to buy into an Eisenhower-aged vision of ‘the good life’, where there’s a social imperative to purchase the latest ‘reliable’ goods that ‘reliable’ people need and use? However inadvertent, this social conditioning – an idealized form of ‘domestic life’, if I can call it that – feels unhealthy when LGBT individuals don’t neatly fit into boxes. When we’re constantly defining new identities and it’s core to our sense of self to play with these, can we create new narratives?
Well, we’ve all heard about the pink dollar and the pink pound and how valuable it is. Even in China, 2017 estimates from Euromonitor suggest the country is home to 70 million LGBT people. The ‘pink economy’ is worth $300billion a year. In an uncertain economic climate, why should advertisers try anything radically different? I was impressed to learn a new advert in China by Tmall, a shopping site, has been bold in fact, featuring a gay couple in an advert timed for the Lunar New Year. One of the men introduced his partner to his parents and in an account of how the ad has performed by Inkstone News, the clip has racked up thousands of views and a wave of support on Weibo.
This is genuine progress. It deserves to be celebrated, as should an advert delivered in early 2020 for Starbucks. It thoughtfully addressed the issues faced by a young person working through their sex and gender identity. ‘Every name’s a story’ by the agency, Iris, is to my mind, well-researched. We’ve all seen tokenistic ads, some of which raise a laugh, but this one from Starbucks is anything but. In the end, though, we’re still being advertised questionably-sourced coffee. However deft advertisers are at appealing to our queer sensibilities, perhaps LGBT people, like any customers, need to reject certain products.
There are other considerations. LGBT rights group, Stonewall, has long advocated companies know what their values are and assertively defend these if their ads come under attack. It was all very well the Hallmark Channel in the US running a positive ad of two women kissing at their wedding, but after the ad came under sustained attack from campaigns group, One Million Moms, Hallmark took the cowardly decision to pull it. One senior executive claimed the decision to run the ad was an accident. This doesn’t come without consequences, as Hallmark soon realised. McCains fries, meanwhile, stuck to the course and continued defending their ad featuring two gay dads, even when homophobes said it angered them to see the pair pictured with their baby. When celebrities like Ellen de Generes take to Twitter to bemoan the Hallmark channel and progressive families rail at flaky advertisers, I feel a great deal of hope. It goes to show – advertising does matter. Both the advertising industry and the public conversation that organically emerges in response to its commercials affect attitudinal change.
Do we as an LGBT community have a responsibility to educate and if necessary, boycott, certain chains or services that don’t have our interests at heart? It depends on whether the premise holds up, whether indeed there’s a definable LGBT community that can, or even wants to collaborate. I am many things, but I’m the first person to complain if all people concern themselves with is my sexual orientation. For all my sins, I am a Tottenham Hotspur fan. I am a Capricorn, I love to travel. Surely, I can be advertised to across many platforms, targeted using multiple techniques. By the same token, I have to accept and be gracious when advertising doesn’t work, or messes things because it can’t fulfil my many diverse needs and preferences. I must accept when advertisers try new things and make genuine mistakes.
For all the forgiveness on show, I still feel mainstream advertisers can’t be complacent. They’re not getting it right nearly enough. When presented with an ad of male hands touching, an executive at Nivea is recently reported to have claimed that the brand doesn’t ‘do’ gay. In a world where it’s hardly worth saying anything at all for fear the complaints you’ll generate will overwhelm your ability to respond, advertising agencies run a gauntlet. I respect that. When the companies who back these agencies (and those who don’t) fall foul of the Twitterati, I also picture the seemingly impossible bridge people in the industry have to cross.
Advertising’s a tough world. But so too at times is being queer, and for all the shadiness of editing a gay couple so they barely seem gay at all, I celebrate British Gas’s recent campaign. Like other household names British Gas are embracing queerness, however slowly. They’re solving decades’ worth of queer invisibility in advertising and, for that, they’re to be applauded.
Andrew is a freelance English teacher, writer and coach. His main interests are European city breaks, researching his family tree and going to the cinema. He is mostly based in Barcelona but has recently spent time in Morocco to research links to its Jewish heritage.
“Here to Solve“ is produced by WPP Nucleus for Centrica.