NEW YORK – A new TV commercial features a good-looking young woman on a beach vacation lounging next to a good-looking young man. He bemoans the glare on his iPad and she fills him in on the Kindle Paperwhite’s sun-friendly screen.
He clicks to buy one himself and suggests they celebrate with a drink.
“My husband’s bringing me a drink right now,” chirps she.
“So is mine,” smiles he as they turn and wave at their male loved ones sitting together at a tiki bar.
Welcome to the latest in gay imagery in mainstream advertising, where LGBT people have been waiting for a larger helping of fairness, or at least something other than punchlines and cliches.
While there are still plenty of those, something has happened in advertising over the last two or three years, nearly two decades after Ikea broke ground in the U.S. with a TV spot featuring a gay couple shopping for a dining room table – a spot that ran only once in New York and Washington, D.C., and was pulled after bomb threats to Ikea stores.
Today, gay and lesbian parents and their kids are featured – along with pitchwoman Ellen DeGeneres – in J.C. Penney ads. Same-sex couples have their own, advertised wedding registries at Macy’s and elsewhere and President Barack Obama offered his seal of approval by evolving into a supporter of gay marriage.
Two happy young men sit together eating at a dining table, with wine and romantic candlelight, in a section of a Crate & Barrel catalog marked “Us & Always.” And we made it through a Super Bowl without any gay jokes at commercial breaks – like the Snickers ad of several years ago featuring two men freaking out after kissing by accident while eating one of the candy bars.
Traditionally lagging behind TV and film content in terms of LGBT inclusion, advertisers in this country are facing considerably less trouble than they used to when taking on gay themes, observers said. Penney’s rebuffed critics and launched a lesbian-focused catalog ad for Mother’s Day that the company followed with a two-dads family – a real family – for Father’s Day.
DeGeneres, who married Portia de Rossi in 2008, continues as a CoverGirl in magazines. Also recently? A lesbian couple was treated to fireworks in a commercial – real ones flash on screen – for K-Y Intense, a personal lubricant that makes their moment or two more memorable. They’re shown spent and satisfied in bed, hair tussled. “Good purchase,” one says to the other.
Though Crate & Barrel declined comment for this story and Amazon didn’t respond to email requests for the same about the Kindle ad, LGBT-focused marketers and monitors think the Mad Men and Women of today’s Madison Avenue and the companies that employ them might finally be getting it.
Now, they hope, a greater degree of diversity in skin tone and ethnicity will follow.
“They’re no longer just targeting gay and lesbian people. They’re targeting people like my mom, who want to know that a company embraces and accepts their gay and lesbian family members, friends and neighbors,” said Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the media watchdog group the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
Others, too, are celebrating the newfound bump in ad visibility, a mirror of cultural gains overall. It’s a boost that comes as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up oral arguments later this month in key challenges that could lead to further recognition of same-sex marriage and spousal benefits.
Bob Witeck, who consults for Fortune 100 companies on LGBT marketing and communications strategies, put the buying power of U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults at $790 billion last year. He estimated the U.S. LGBT adult population at 16 million, though others say their ranks could be as many as 25 million.
There’s no demographic evidence or social science that points to the LGBT segment as notably higher earning or wealthier than anybody else, though they’re often louder in protesting offensive ad messaging and loyal to brands and companies that support them.
“Things have changed significantly in terms of risk and reward,” Witeck said. “Businesses don’t view this as a risk model any longer.”
Particularly, he said, when it comes to portraying marriage.
“Marriage, at one time, was the third rail,” Witeck said. “That terrified companies. Most of this happened when the president said he supported marriage equality.”
A consumer lust for “truth-telling” isn’t lost on major advertisers, including those that once restricted themselves to trotting out gay-friendly fodder as one-offs when Pride Month and its multicolored flag flies freely each June.
One recent pride standout in advertising, restricted to digital markets, is an Oreo cookie with a mountain of multicolored filling.
The company fielded queries from consumers who thought it was available for purchase in stores. It wasn’t.
American Airlines, in 2010, ran outdoor advertising at bus stops and subway stations in New York showing two men on a beach with the slogan: “Here’s to his and his beach towels. Proud to support the community that supports us.”
Generally, Witeck said, putting a human face on gay couples and families in advertising is where much of the effort lands today.
“For the gay consumer and their families and friends, and lots and lots and lots of Americans, they expect to see those couples appear everywhere, but they don’t want them trotted out with a pride flag,” Witeck said. “Amazon didn’t ballyhoo the message. They just landed it.”
Mark Elderkin, CEO of the Gay Ad Network, which focuses on the LGBT niche market, said mainstream gay messaging has “passed the tipping point, where there’s more to gain than there is to lose” for advertisers.
While there are groups of “vocal antagonists,” he said more advertisers bolstered by broader media exposure for gay characters and storylines in non-ad content – “The New Normal,” “Modern Family,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” CNN’s out-of-the-closet anchorman Anderson Cooper – have explored nontraditional families and included LGBT imagery in “normal” settings.
“It seems to be moving quickly forward. It’s companies that want to be more on the leading edge, more for the next generation of this country,” Elderkin said. “It’s not your parents’ brand anymore. It’s your brand and your kids’ brand.”