Vague or explicit LGBT campaigns?

August 30, 2012


Gay ad of IKEA in Italy

Hi everybody,


Recently I wrote about the potential of the LGBT target group and about the characteristics which all members of this diverse community have in common. In this post I want to present you two advertising strategies to target gay consumers via mainstream media and discuss some problems or reservations that are related with these strategies.

Generally, before talking about strategies I define a gay marketing campaign as all communicational messages targeting gay consumers by implicit or explicit homosexual references. This can vary from vaguely implying of a same-sex attraction, to an undisguised promoting of gay imagery. This is a very easy distinction but you can classify every gay advertising campaign along this dimension.

  1. For a long time, communicational strategist preferred an implicit vague way of addressing gay target groups. The messages of these campaigns are based on ambiguity and covered symbols. The main part of the society usually doesn't register these symbols or ambiguous situations as gay content. The aim of vague campaigns is to get the attention of a LGBT audience on the one side but avoid a potential alienation or a backlash of the rest on the population on the other side. Besides that, communicational strategists can also reach both target markets – the LGBT and the heterosexual one – and do not have to design two editions. The problem with such campaigns is that they still don't treat homosexuals as fully integrated or to have their place in the midst of society because the addressing messages are covered as if it is something disreputable. As I wrote in my previous post the LGBT community nowadays has a so called “gay pride” concerning their identity (coming out process, direct or indirect experiences of discrimination), so they might not be attracted by messages that play with ambiguity or even worse they might feel disgruntled by the fact they are just targeted implicitly. I already stated before that the LGBT community does not feel particularly attracted by classical heterosexual imagery, because they do not represent their life’s reality.
  2. Therefore, the best way to address the LGBT community is an explicit gay marketing message e.g. showing a homosexual couple. Consequently, these messages attract big attention among the LGBT community because  they are outstanding from the majority of media campaigns. In addition, those campaigns do not only attract gays and lesbians but also a gay-friendly audience, consisting of open minded heterosexuals. A company could generate big media attention because in most of the branches they would play a pioneering role. Several branches such as tourism are already using gay imagery and having big successes with it.

If it was that easy, every brand which is reaching out for the LGBT community would act like this. As I've indicated, the biggest concern regarding explicit gay imagery is to provoke a backlash. These concerns are not completely unwarranted because in several markets homosexuality is a politicized and polarizing issue.

I just want to give an example to empathize this concern: In 1994, Swedish furniture retailer IKEA showed the first gay TV spot on American Television (also very interesting are the comments under the video clip). The spot shows an intimate gay couple talking about furniture. The couple is finishing the sentences of one another. Shortly after its launch, the spot was re-scheduled to late night program. Additionally, it was broadcasted very shortly before being pulled. This decision was caused by safety reasons: As the commercial provoked bomb threats for one of IKEA's stores in the US. Despite these negative experiences in some countries IKEA has preceded a strategy of direct gay marketing for about 20 years with positive results and a pioneering image on this terrain (This strategy  was already topic in this blog). Even though some other advertisers and marketers have followed these example and have integrated explicit homosexual content to their marketing campaigns, there are still a lot of reservations due to reactions like in the US and it still keeps advertiser from using explicit gay content on mainstream media.

There are also examples where these reservations are unfounded: One year before the IKEA spot Danish director Lars von Trier produced a spot for the Newspaper “Politiken” with explicit gay content. The spot did not provoke any protests and was not anticipated as shocking even though it showed a kissing gay couple. In contrast to the US market there haven't been heavy reactions concerning this ad which is maybe due to Scandinavian society which is said to be very tolerant and open minded.

In my opinion the decision between explicit or implicit strategy depends on the brand or product for which the campaign is aimed for as well as on the attitudes of the whole audience. As I described earlier, the US audience of the mid 90s hasn't been ready to be confronted with explicit gay content even though it was presented by a very gay-friendly brand like IKEA.

What do you think about the future of gay marketing? Or do you know good examples where explicit gay content was successfully placed in a marketing campaign? I am really looking forward to your answers.