Marketing out: A move for open LGBT advertising

  • by Richard Waters
  • Wednesday January 28, 2015
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This month Tiffany & Co. unveiled its first advertising campaign featuring a same-sex couple. This new age advertisement didn't feature actors or LGBT models but a real life couple out of New York City. Although these new, open LGBT campaigns are a major step forward, marketing to this diverse audience has had a rocky past filled with layers of misconceptions, stereotypes, and societal backlash muffling a true, targeted, advertising voice.

Through my research at University of San Francisco and my consulting with Fortune 500 companies and nonprofit organizations, I've explored the issues surrounding the business to consumer (B2C) communication and advertising efforts targeting the LGBT community. While growing research and LGBT civil advancements are pushing true advertising campaigns, marketing misconceptions and sociological myths fueled many of the original targeted campaigns directed at the LGBT U.S. consumer base.

A notable misconception in the evolution of LGBT marketing was the widely accepted myth of gay affluence. This notion stemmed from the idea that LGBT individuals did not follow mainstream family values; therefore, they had extra income that would commonly go toward the costs of raising a family. The Williams Institute at UCLA studied this inaccurate phenomenon in 2014 in relation to food stamp participation in the LGBT communities finding that "LGBT adults are 1.7 times more likely than non-LGBT adults to not have had enough money to feed themselves or their family in the past year."

The misconception of disposable income in the gay community led to large-scale marketing efforts toward these individuals on a false pretense. High-end, luxury brands targeted the LGBT audience through the past couple decades and continue to do so today. These brands spanned an array of industries, including automotive, alcohol, jewelry, and apparel, and some of the larger brands included Alfani, Gucci, and Rolex. This particular Alfani ad features two men embracing in luxury suits, and it reinforced the idea that gay identity was about luxury and high fashion.

Marketing in this fashion was not only incorrectly targeted; it had negative psychological and monetary effects on the audience. The message these companies pushed in their advertisements was that the gay lifestyle was one of partying, expensive clothes, and luxury items. Beginning in 1981, Swedish vodka company Absolut targeted this audience in a vibrant and partying manner, encouraging spending on their brand name alcohol.

By pushing this vision of a lavish lifestyle onto the LGBT community in order to capture this perceived "gay dollar," this encouraged individuals in the community to overspend and rely on credit. People were racking up debt and wrecking their lives just to live up to a certain lifestyle shown to them through advertising and what they thought was the image they had to embody in order to fit in.

Not only did this false marketing push debt on the community, it also had detrimental psychological effects on those struggling with their LGBT identity. These individuals were already outside of mainstream culture and now they felt outside of the culture that was presented to them. Those that recognized that they couldn't afford the product and weren't represented by the imagery battled to find their place in society and were left with a sense of outsiderness.

After pushing the image of partying and luxury onto the gay demographic, the next step in the evolution of marketing was the idea of gay vague. Mainstream advertisers managed to avoid large-scale social backlash when advertising toward this diverse audience, because their ads were designed in such a way that the gay and straight audiences perceived them in different ways.

One of the best known examples of gay vague advertising is the 1997 Volkswagen Golf television commercial featuring two men who salvage a discarded chair by putting it in the back of their vehicle as they are driving around aimlessly. The ad, titled "Sunday afternoon (," debuted during the much-publicized coming out episode of the sitcom Ellen . Volkswagen executives have repeatedly denied that their intention was to portray the two men as boyfriends and were surprised at the reaction; however, the ad soon led to the company's sponsorship of gay Pride events the following year.

From a heteronormative perspective, these two men could be college roommates or could simply be friends hanging out. But for the gay audience, this is perceived as an open gay couple and a form of LGBT advertising. Another example of the gay vague style of advertising is the previously described advertisement from Alfani that includes the catchphrase "Perfectly Put Together" and features two men embracing. Again, these men could be co-workers or family members for mainstream audiences while gay audiences could perceive the arm-around-the-shoulders as the embrace of a couple.

Society has become more accepting of diverse couplings beyond the traditional family scenes in a variety of presentations. The next step in this evolution of advertising was a style of ads that featured many different types of gender and sexual orientation in an "all-inclusive" manner. During the 2014 holiday season, Tylenol recreated the iconic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting, "Freedom from Want," ( with a television commercial that featured a variety of families, including lesbian mothers sharing the meal with a former husband. This evolutionary step is more open than the gay vague stage, but it doesn't quite reach the next level of mainstream, open LGBT marketing toward the LGBT audience.

With advertisements such as Tiffany & Co's new groundbreaking campaign along with civil advancement in terms of same-sex marriage achievements, we are in an exciting, progressive time. I encourage researchers, leaders, and the entire LGBT community to take a closer look at how and why they are being marketed to and voice their opinions through the support of websites such as Commercial Closet, which grades advertising from the LGBT standpoint. This is a time for understanding of LGBT stereotypes and greater study into this diverse and growing audience. Backed by the momentum swing of civil change, research and advertising's impact on the LGBT consumer should be analyzed and addressed now and in the coming years.


Richard Waters, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of San Francisco who specializes in public relations, marketing, and public administration, particularly in the LGBT realm.