JCPenney’s 2012 Father’s Day catalog featuring a happy family scene was not entirely welcomed, as anticipated. Why? The catalog did not feature the kind of happy family scene one would expect, but instead a photo of a real-life same-sex couple, Cooper Smith and Todd Koch of Dallas, having a playful moment with their kids. Almost immediately after release, one conservative group charged the retailer with “promoting sin in their advertisements,” although it wasn’t Penney’s first venture into this territory. In defense, JCPenney released a statement that said: “We want to be a store for all Americans.”
Gay-focused ads, however, have been around for much longer than we realize. Other brands have been tapping into the LGBT market with similarly ambiguous advertising. Ray-Ban’s “Never Hide” campaign in 2007, the largest in its history and running in 20 countries, featured an ad showing two English gentlemen holding hands as they crossed the street. After years of baby steps in effectively marketing to gay consumers, who represent an estimated $790 billion in spending power, brands like Crate & Barrel, American Airlines, and even Bridgestone tires have brought their marketing out of the closet.
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A look back through advertising’s history reveals images of startlingly male-on-male intimacy dating back to the early 20th century. Commercial artist J.C. Leyendecker’s illustrations for brands like Arrow shirts and Interwoven socks in the ’20s and ’30s influenced the sassy tastes of millions of American men. Although Leyendecker hardly seems to have hidden the fact, only a few knew he was gay. His work represents a stereotypically homoerotic world of crew teams, lifeguards and hunky playboys, many of them modeled after Leyendecker’s young lover, Charles Beach.
In post war years, Schlitz, the most Middle American straight-guy beer brand ever, ran a series of print ads featuring pairs of men in a variety of settings—a camping trip, a train’s bar car. In each of the ads, one guy would confess to the other that he was “curious” about the beer, after which he would “try it” and, invariably, “like it.”
Maintaining a haze around the ads’ motives may at times cause problems. Neil Kraft, former senior vice-president of advertising and creative services at Calvin Klein remembers 1992, when 20-year-old Mark Wahlberg stripped down to his boxer briefs for a series Calvin Klein ads. Sales went from $11 million to $150 million within a year. Wahlberg, a devout Catholic who later became a serious Hollywood actor, seemed less than comfortable with the idea of dudes admiring his six-pack—or other standout characteristics. Once Wahlberg got tagged a homophobe, gay men “began to sense they had been robbed,” as the British newspaper The Independent puts it. According to Kraft, “It wasn’t a conscious decision to market to gay men, though it certainly wasn’t something we discouraged when we realized it was happening—we knew he’d appeal to both,” says Kraft.
Recent campaigns such as those of JCPenney, Amazon, Gap ,and Ray-Ban may well signify that vagueness, as a marketing convention, is itself passing into history. After all, these are brands, which are not just hinting about homosexuality, but depicting the real lives of the men and women to whom they are reaching out.[AW]