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How Advertising Depicts Gays and Lesbians

Characterizations in mainstream television commercials rely on stereotypes ranging from diva queens to scary leather men.

As a longtime reporter on the advertising industry, Michael Wilke understands that television commercials are made to sell products, not create social change. But when it comes to representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, he'd like companies to at least acknowledge that advertising can have a positive or negative effect on how people perceive one another.

In a presentation at the 2005 "Reaching Out" conference in Boston on February 5th, organized by gay and lesbian students at Harvard Business School, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Yale School of Management, Wilke screened some of the best and worst examples of commercials depicting the LGBT community.

Ninety percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay or lesbian, said Wilke, founder and executive director of the Commercial Closet Association—a nonprofit that works to educate companies about LGBT representation in advertising. Add to that the success of shows such as "Queer as Folks," "The L Word," and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"—plus the upcoming launch in June 2005 of Logo, MTV's new gay and lesbian channel—and it's clear that "we've gone from being invisible to inescapable."

Yet the characterization of the LGBT community in mainstream television commercials is sorely lacking in diversity, with stereotypes ranging from diva queens to scary leather men.

Very few companies are prepared to target the LGBT audience.

In a spot for TJ Maxx, for example, a gay fashion designer throws a screaming tantrum because his creations are being sold at a discount. While it drew some chuckles from the audience, Wilke cautioned that gay people and straight people could laugh at the commercial for different reasons. "I don't tell companies not to include effeminate men or leather men or masculine women in their commercials," he said. "They exist, they are part of the community, and it would be unfair to say they shouldn't be represented. But I do suggest that a company take things to the next level. Make the commercial funny so that we can all find humor in it across a broader spectrum."

As a more successful attempt, Wilke cited a commercial for Salon Selectives hair products, in which a hairdresser finds himself working as a car mechanic now that women can style their own hair. "It starts out looking like a classic gay male stereotype, with an effeminate man talking to his little lapdog," said Wilke. "But as it progresses we're also laughing at a fish-out-of-water joke."

Companies that have repeatedly incorporated LGBT themes into mainstream ads include Viacom (particularly MTV), Unilever, IKEA, and Levi Strauss, among others. During the 1997 "coming out" episode for the television show "Ellen," Volkswagen ran a commercial that showed two men driving silently down the road. They stop, pick up an armchair they see on the sidewalk, then stop again to drop it off when they realize it smells bad. Volkswagen said that they didn't intend for the couple to be gay—but that it was okay if viewers thought that was the case. "In 1997, no company had ever said that," said Wilke, who described the commercial as "gay vague."

Research is a little-used tool for companies hoping to target the LGBT community, noted Wilke. One exception is Subaru, a brand favored by many lesbian drivers that uses the tennis player Martina Navratilova as a spokeswoman—her first major endorsement since she came out in 1981.

"Overall, however, very few companies are prepared to target the LGBT audience, in terms of their mindset, budget, and creative approach to commercials," he remarked. Putting the "gay guy" on a project doesn't really work. "One person can't represent the whole community. Money needs to be spent on research."

Companies should go national with their campaigns, added Wilke, rather than assume that only consumers in major coastal cities are sophisticated enough to handle LGBT themes. And once companies have taken the plunge, they should be consistent and confident in their message—modifying or withdrawing ads does neither the business nor the community any good.

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor at the HBS Alumni Bulletin.