Pink Dollar Marketing and Queer Representation in Advertising

As in other media, queer people have gained a greater and more widely visible presence within the advertising world, with ad agencies courting the “Pink Dollar”. This is not surprising, considering that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community is a multi-billion dollar target audience, estimated to be worth around $835 billion.

The marketing trend of seeking out queer money is seen by many as a double-edged sword: on one hand, it’s an opportunity for gays and lesbians to legitimize themselves through their purchasing power and to bring about equal rights by demonstrating how valuable they can be to mainstream companies; on the other, it opens up issues such as ghettoization, further marginalization of non-middle class queer people, and the overshadowing of civil rights issues by questions of financial strength. At the same time, many companies continue to employ negative or overly restrictive stereotypes of queer people in order to give their ad campaigns an edge.

Regardless of whether or not we view pink dollar marketing as good or bad, we cannot deny its ubiquity. Homosexuality is so often the focus of ads targeting both queer and straight audiences that the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has created an online resource that tracks various gay-themed ads at The following section examines three main types of advertising that relate to queer people, stereotyping, and emancipation: ads that feature queer people and market to a heterosexual mainstream; ads that target queer people on behalf of companies within the heterosexual mainstream; and ads produced by queer-oriented companies for a queer demographic.

Mainstream Companies Courting Queer Dollars

A common reaction to marketing towards LGBTQ people has been to see this as a sign of greater acceptance: but acceptance of what? When R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company sought to break into the queer market in San Francisco, their proposed gay-themed marketing campaign was tellingly referred to in-house as “Project SCUM”. Certainly companies are more than eager to be tolerant and accepting of the enormous buying power of queer people, but many organizations who court queer money when it suits their needs will also act against queer interests when it’s in their best interest.

McDonald’s experienced first-hand the challenges in advertising to the LGBTQ community when it released a television ad in France in 2010 as a part of its “Come as you are” campaign. Although the ad, which featured a closeted gay teen sitting down to lunch with his oblivious father, was not judgmental, the mixed signals it delivered were certainly confusing, juxtaposing “come as you are” with “stay in the closet”. The ad has been variously seen as both pro-gay and homophobic, and as an attempt by McDonald’s to get the best of both worlds while risking the least amount of blowback in the U.S. (In 2008 McDonald’s reneged on its support of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce after coming under fire from the anti-gay American Family Association.) Unfortunately for McDonald’s, the ad still sparked controversy in the U.S. from political pundit Bill O’Reilly, who opined that if McDonald’s could run this ad, their next step would be to make one especially for members of Al-Qaeda.

Ads like this and the reactions they elicit highlight the many challenges queer people face when it comes to advertising. Indeed, despite the increased prevalence of queer or purportedly queer people in ads (according to GLAAD in 2004 36 per cent of Fortune 100 companies advertised directly to queer people and over $223 million was spent annually on advertising in gay print media) the advertising industry continues to struggle with gay people and themes. Michael Wilke, an ad analyst from New York and creator of The Commercial Closet website, has argued that although there has been a huge increase in recent years in the number of ads featuring queer people, most are designed not to target them as a market, but rather to exploit them. With many of these ads aimed at a mainstream market, they tend to depict queer sexualities as not only being different from, but also as ‘less than’ heterosexuality.

Queers in the Crossfire

Heterosexual Products, Heterosexual Audiences

The use by mainstream companies of queer characters and situations in ads that are geared towards heterosexual audiences can be controversial, with the final products often jarring to viewers. More often than not, this reaction is intended, with queer characters and situations integrated into ads as comedic devices or to tap into “edgy” social cachet for a product or company.

While this kind of advertising is rarely overtly homophobic, it operates within an articulation of difference or “otherness.”

Many ads aimed at the heterosexual mainstream rely on devices that “Other” queer people by aligning queerness with notions of sexual predation or by playing on homophobic anxieties.

Mainstream ads featuring queer characters generally play with the notion of gender nonconformity. In Western and North American culture the notion of males behaving “like females” is easily played up for laughs with the butt of the joke being heterosexual masculinity’s anxiety towards queer situations. Thus, ads in which straight guys (always guys) “accidentally do gay stuff” are particularly popular. The “gay stuff” in question ranges from wearing women’s clothing, to looking as if they are engaging in a same-sex act (which is always mercifully defused at the last minute so that no one gets the wrong idea), to mistakenly kissing or touching another male in a sexual way. In the event of sexual contact, the participating males always vociferously express their horror and disgust as the audience laughs along at their misfortune.

Ads which traffic in sexual ambiguity invite the audience to play a game of “are they or aren’t they?” Usually these feature young, androgynous males and females or athletic types in more arty representations. These types of ads don’t usually include overt sexual content, but they are “coded” with queer imagery: young adults, all of the same sex, just happen to be hanging out together while semi-naked (fashion advertising is notorious for resorting to this). The sexual ambiguity in these ads is not presented to the audience in a positive way, but from a position of taboo, intending to titillate the viewer.

Finally, there are ads that represent homosexuality as a punch line. In these commercials queer people are usually portrayed as being “ordinary” [i.e. heterosexual] people going about their business until something gives them away as being gay or lesbian before the ad ends. These commercials are manipulative because audiences usually interpret them as portraying a world in which gay people are fully accepted. Most often, though, the commercial capitalizes on the “reveal” moment near the end to mildly shock viewers. These ads depend on an assumption of universal heterosexuality in order for the surprise to take effect. While these types of commercials are usually ambiguous in their moral judgment on homosexuality, they still rely on marginalizing queerness as a means of tricking their heterosexual audiences.

Socially Correct Participation

Media Theorist Richard Omann once famously said that “markets are shaped, not discovered.”

In 1996, he studied “family” magazines of the early 20th Century such as Munsey’s and Ladies Home Journal. In his view, such magazines trained the growing American Bourgeois class in how to behave appropriately according to their class. Omann found that sex and sexuality were present within these magazines, but under a very restricted set of rules and regulations. If sex was to appear it had to under one of the following conditions:

  • As art
  • As a vice of the lower classes
  • As discussed in terms of moral censure.

LGBTQ Commercials and Customers: a Queer to Queer Network

While it may be tempting to think that these issues are not present when queer marketers target their own, this is not the case: even queer marketers can sometimes forget that queer people do not share a monolithic identity. A cursory glance through the comments section of The Commercial Closet illustrates that the queer community is not united on how it feels it should represent itself or be represented by others. Moreover, respondents on the website who agree that a particular ad is hurtful or offensive don’t necessarily agree on why it is so. Some may feel it is because certain stereotypes such as sissies, cross-dressers, butch lesbians or leathermen are negative, while others believe that it isn’t the stereotype itself that is a bad thing, but our insistence that a given “type” is bad because it is foreign to our own ideals.

Many queer-oriented ads make particularly strong use of traditionally stereotyped characters by acknowledging their basis in reality and presenting them respectfully and positively.

A cursory glance at queer-to-queer marketing and the amount of controversy surrounding some campaigns shows that when it comes to issues of sexual identity and visibility we haven’t necessarily evolved as much as we wish we had in the past 60 years. In a study of the effects of queer advertising on queer-oriented media, Katherine Sender looked at just how much our own assumptions about media, sexuality, and advertising contribute to a type of advertising that presents a very specific type of ideal LGBTQ consumer. Her research into advertising by and for queer people turns the notion that “sex sells” on its head, asking “When might sex not sell?” or, to put it another way: when does not-sex sell?

Sender found that LGBTQ marketers frequently prescribe and deny certain types of sexual identities in order to normalize homosexuality in the face of a wide heterosexual viewership. In practice, she found these marketers consistently removing sexual content from the pages and airwaves of mainstream gay media while simultaneously proposing a very specific brand of homosexuality as the only legitimate kind. Her findings showed that The Advocate, the oldest LGBTQ-interest magazine in the U.S., “emphasized the ideal image of the gay consumer as affluent, white, male, 30-something, gender-conforming, and sexually discreet.” (Sender, 335) This was the image that the magazine consistently constructed and fed to its readership (which was significantly more diverse) as a lesson in “socially correct participation.”

Sender’s study notes a generally accepted trend in mainstream gay and lesbian media that “the class position of gay men is made precarious in part by public evidence of their sexual culture.” (Sender, 339) To put it another way, LGBTQ advertisers within gay media are aware of and operate under the notion that queer people lose legitimacy and status within the larger society when they are seen to be fully sexually active and desiring subjects. The de-sexualization of LGBTQ media is often articulated in terms of an attempt to make “respectable” the gay civil rights movement. Sender’s view is that queer advertisers are hyper-conscious of queer stereotypes and often work so hard against them that they can actually do harm by forcibly excluding huge portions of the queer community from the frame of legitimacy.

Certainly, advertising has come a long way in terms of allowing queer people to be represented in ways that aren’t always negative or ridiculous. For example, this ad from Hyundi features a respectful representation of lesbian women that, while being clever, does not pander to a heterosexist male fantasy.

This commercial for the Tribecca Film Festival uses drag as a device and remains humorous even as it affirms the agency and personhood of the crossdressed character. The reference to Tribecca as being “The city that’s seen everything” treats sexual difference as nothing to be ashamed of or put off by.

That said, while advertising may herald increased acceptability of certain types of queerness, it always represents one thing first and foremost: money.

It’s important to keep in mind that despite the slew of issues around queerness in advertising, LGBTQ people are subject to the same advertising traps as those faced by their heterosexual counterparts: body image, alcohol and tobacco and gender conformity. Moreover, brands that specifically target queer people are able to generate higher brand loyalty: queer people are generally very active when it comes to using their dollars as votes and they will stick to companies that have maintained a positive presence within queer communities. Both Witeck-Combs and The Commercial Closet highlight how loyal queer people are towards queer-friendly brands. While this is often seen as a good thing – a promise of money in exchange for more gay-friendly behaviour – it also suggests that queer people are being bought and sold by companies in exchange for treatment that heterosexuals should expect by default.

If there is any doubt, consider that in 2011 the Miller Brewing Company was nominated for a GLAAD Media Advertising Award despite the fact that in the same year it ran this ad, which very clearly indicates that the company wants nothing to do with effeminate or potentially gay men.

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