Has the ad world embraced same-sex love stories at last?

The last 30 years has seen the advertising world try to catch up with the rest of society in terms of its portrayal of modern relationships. Here, CR investigates whether the love stories it tells are truly representative of the LGBT+ community

Advertising is supposed to reflect the world around us or at least paint a picture of what the world could be, but it’s always dragged its feet when it comes to adapting to society’s progressive attitudes, values and cultural touchpoints. So, when it comes to love and relationships, it comes as no surprise that the ad world has been a little slow to cotton on to the fact that heterosexual love is not the only kind that exists.

Before the 90s, attitudes were slowly starting to shift and become more liberal, but if you looked at just UK and US TV advertisements alone you’d think same-sex couples just weren’t a thing. The first time ad audiences were treated to a same sex couple wasn’t until 1994 when Ikea ran a spot in the US created by Deutsch, which featured two gay men shopping for a dining table.

Val DiFebo, CEO of Deutsch NY has said of the ad: “Love is love is love. And this goes back to 1994, well before being openly gay was commonplace. One of my favourite marketing moments of all time was so simple, yet so controversial and groundbreaking.” The advert was praised by many, however others were outraged, and Ikea was flooded with complaints and calls to boycott the company.

But there were some commentators who were aware from the off that being seen as an ally to the LGBT+ community could potentially be lucrative for advertisers. Reporting on protests at Ikea’s east coast stores, Bruce Horovitz of the LA Times wrote: “If it becomes clear to other major marketers that Ikea’s business is not harmed, and perhaps even helped, by the ad, it could profoundly affect the way major advertisers speak to gays and lesbians.” 

Across the pond in the UK, the first on-screen same-sex kiss took place in 1974 in the half-hour BBC drama Girl, which told the story of an affair between two female army officers and starred Alison Steadman. However, it wouldn’t be until the mid-90s that advertisers thought we could handle such scenes, and even then it was a bit of a false start. In 1995, Guinness had planned to run an ad directed by Tony Kaye featuring two men kissing accompanied by the song Stand By Your Man by Tammy Wynette. Due to a flurry of hostile press stories and pressure from anti-gay groups, the ad was never released and only YouTube can now provide us of a glimpse of what could have been.

It wasn’t until 1998 that Unilever stepped up to become the first British advertiser to feature an openly gay couple. Created by Ogilvy & Mather, the spot was for Impulse, the body spray brand that permeated the armpits of most 90s and 00s teens.

The ad began with a meet cute between a man and a woman after she drops her shopping, before, following some sultry and suggestive glances, the twist was that the guy walked away not with the mystery woman but arm in arm with his boyfriend. While you could say this was a positive move for UK advertising, it signified the beginning of a decade-long trend of ‘pull back and reveal’ ads where the fact that a character was gay was treated as a novelty or a punchline, and resulted in spots that were often unfunny, tone-deaf or just offensive. 

Some notable examples include the 2006 Toyota campaign One Thing You Can Count On, created by Saatchi & Saatchi, which saw a father waiting to meet his daughter’s date. “Is this one like the others?,” he asks. Her response is a knowing, “Not exactly”. When the father sees the Toyota pull up, he’s satisfied and goes back inside, while the daughter leaps into the car to kiss her new girlfriend. Gotcha!

Another cringey offering was Pepsi Max’s 2008 ad featuring national treasure Kelly Brook. The ad depicts two guys in a pub encouraging their friend to go up and talk to an attractive woman and Kelly Brook who have both been giving him the not-so-subtle eye all night. After building up courage, the guy walks over but heads straight past the women to the good looking guy at the end of the bar. His pals are agog and gobsmacked that he would reject Kelly Brook … for a man?! 

That same year, Heinz’s ad for their deli mayo sparked controversy and was pulled after just a week of airing when two of the male characters shared a kiss. The ad portrayed a family getting ready for school and work, but with two male parents.

Created by AMV BBDO, it’s clear it was intended to be a provocative move at the time. Sadly for some audience members, the kiss went too far as the Advertising Standards Agency received 200 complaints saying the ad was “offensive”, and it was “inappropriate to see two men kissing”. The Guardian reported that some said it raised a difficult problem for parents having to discuss the issue of same-sex relationships with younger viewers. From just those 200 complaints, Heinz pulled the ad four weeks short of its full run, proving that for some brands the negative backlash from telling these alternative stories was too much.  

However, around this time, publications like Marketing Week, The Telegraph, AdWeek and FastCo began exploring how targeting the LGBT+ market specifically could be profitable for brands and how the legalisation of gay marriage could be used as a marketing tool. But with some brands not wanting to offend their perceived core audiences, they adopted a softer, almost invisible, approach known as ‘gay-vague advertising’ to tap into those markets. The idea here was that brands wanting to reach LGBT+ audiences could do so without the risk of a conservative backlash by using coded language and ambiguous visuals. 

One of the most well-known examples of this was in 1997, with an ad for the Volkswagen Golf in the US. It depicts two men driving around on a Sunday afternoon and essentially lets the audience decide whether they’re a couple or just roommates. It’s incredibly subtle, but one tell-tale giveaway behind the intent might have been that it aired during the famous ‘coming out’ episode of the sitcom Ellen.

While their efforts were often misguided, it seemed like brands were determined to appear LGBT+ friendly, and the 2010s saw a marked increase of ads aimed at or in support of the LGBT+ market. In 2011, the US brand KY-Jelly created a spot for its product K-Y Intense, which introduced the brand’s first lesbian couple. 

Created by Mother New York and directed by David Shane, the company wanted its advertising to reflect its values. At the time a spokesperson said: “Since 1998, [KY-Brand] has sponsored dozens of LBGT and HIV/AIDS organisations and has also participated at LGBT Pride celebrations and other community events. Gay male couples have been featured in print advertising since 2008 and now the brand is continuing its tradition of support and visibility with advertising that is inclusive of lesbian couples.”

Again, this might seem like a meek effort after so long, but advertisements in the past surrounding sexual health and pleasure are sometimes even worse at representing the LGBT+ community. Condom giant Durex, for instance is relatively coy when it comes to showcasing same-sex couples and in 2014 it even received complaints for its Earth Hour inspired ad which featured nine straight couples turning their tech off to get sexy. The reason? According to Durex the straight actors performed better than the gay actors in auditions. If you actually watch the lacklustre ad though, it’s a dubious claim.  

In the past five years, advertisers have moved away from being ‘gay vague’ and thankfully have ditched the tired ‘pull back and reveals’, and instead have tried to normalise same-sex couples, but in doing so often still fall a bit short. In 2015, 180-year-old jewellery brand Tiffany & Co launched its first TV ad featuring a same-sex couple for a campaign called Will You? The ad captured couples talking about their loved ones and building up to pop the question. However, all but one of the couples was straight and the same-sex couple were two white men.

It’s a pattern seen a lot in the last few years, where the ‘gay box’ is ticked, but over and over again it’s two white, conventionally attractive men that are featured. Examples of these safe nods to same-sex love stories are numerous, with brands including Lloyd’s Bank, O2, and McCain all getting in on the act.

These ads aren’t terrible, and the sentiment behind them is to portray the love stories of everyone, but ultimately it’s become a relatively safe approach by advertisers to normalise cisgender, gay, able, white men. Even when they are featured, its often just one same-sex story among a plethora of straight ones, adding an air of tokenism and box ticking. 

When brands do drift from this new norm, we still see a rush of headlines, op-eds and social media flurry about how groundbreaking it is. Yet perhaps an awareness of these milestones might be a good thing. Take Renault Clio’s 2019 ad created by Publicis, which charted the story of two women meeting on a French-exchange programme as kids, and then after years apart finally getting together as a couple.

It was celebrated by numerous publications and platforms including The Independent, Grazia, and even The Sun. For Molly Long, reporter at Marketing Week, it was a welcome relief to see this kind of story be told by such a pedestrian, well-known brand like Renault. “The love story between two women is one I rarely see shown on national TV,” she wrote. “It’s a relationship I often have to seek out, whether through unpicking subtle chemistry between characters on television, or niche films.” 

Others complained it was an over-explored narrative, however. Harron Walker for Vice wrote: “A lesbian love story, however brief, can be a nice change of pace in a media landscape dominated by straight romance and the male gaze. But the story is still selling a car. It is now more profitable for Renault to include our narratives in their ads than it is to exclude us. Why celebrate that?”

There is also similar backlash from the LGBT+ community to the way that brands have wholeheartedly embraced the commercial possibilities of the annual Pride events around the world, but often only in crass and tokenistic ways, and without showing an understanding of the wider history of the movement.

In 2019, a YouGov study commissioned as part of Channel 4’s annual diversity competition found that the LGBT+ community features in just 3% of ads in the UK, despite making up at least 6% of the population. The results also found that 60% of the 2,000 people surveyed believed that when represented, the LGBT+ community are often shown in ‘tokenistic roles’, and same-sex relationships are rarely seen as being part of a family unit.   

Depressing as it is to admit it, when we compare what advertisers are creating today to Ikea’s 1994 Dining Table ad, how far have we really come? Should same-sex love stories in 2020 still be heralded as ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘brave’ for brands to embrace? While adverts might not rid the world of homophobia, brands can play an important role in society simply by accurately reflecting the real world: it’s therefore vital they showcase and celebrate the diverse array of love stories that exist, and in ways where featuring LGBT+ couples isn’t designed simply to attract headlines.