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Saturn attempts to humorously recall a different kind of era, when homophobia was more accepted.

Related Gully Coverage

Complete Coverage Gay Mundo


Saturn's toy VUE.

The Commercial Closet

Saturn and VW Ads Take Different Roads

by Michael Wilke

NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 11, 2002. General Motors' Saturn, the "different kind of car company," in its latest commercial attempts to humorously recall a different kind of era, when homophobia was more accepted.

Four guys are on a weekend camping trip and, as they unpack gear out of their VUE (a mini-SUV introduced last year), they hear the faint sounds of a familiar tune — the "Dueling Banjos" theme from the film "Deliverance." The men scramble back into the car in mortal fear and speed off as the narrator adds about the vehicle, "Get in, get away." The ad references the 1972 film starring Burt Reynolds (nominated for Best Picture), in which four men's camping trip turns ugly when a pair of male hillbillies rape the men at gunpoint.

"Timeless and humorous"
The campaign began in October and is from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco, which recently won the $300 million annual business.

"We were looking for a pop culture tie-in that's timeless and humorous," explains Cindy Kamerad, a Saturn spokeswoman. "College kids know about that movie." Kamerad notes that the ad has gotten positive reviews on an unofficial Saturn web site, www.saturnfans.com, and that sales have doubled for the new vehicle now that advertising has kicked in.

It is the second reference to male-on-male rape in a national commercial this year, following a Cadbury Schweppes' 7UP ad set in a jail.

Saturn was the first American car company with a gay market ad, though it ran just once in a 1995 OUT magazine before it came back more consistently in 1999 when the company extended equal benefits to gay employees.

Volkswagen stumbles into another gay vague effort
Meanwhile, Volkswagen recently introduced a Jetta commercial where two men pull into a gas station and one pumps fuel while the other runs into the convenience store for a snack. As the man comes out, they give each other long look with a faint smile before they switch sides of the vehicle and drive away.

Gay audiences have read the commercial as gay vague, imagining that the two men share a romantic moment, though Volkswagen says it was unintended. In the spot, which is called "Roasted," the men actually realize that they've been sunburned on only half their bodies from driving, but the burns are so light that many viewers never noticed it.

"There are some who say, 'We don't get it.' It's difficult to pick up the fact that they were sunburned," notes Volkswagen spokesman Steve Keyes. Because many consumers never understood the burn joke, "We're going to revise it to show the sunburn better with computer technology." Arnold Communications, Boston, created the ad.

Going where others feared to tread
Back in 1997, the Volkswagen Golf offered perhaps the most famous gay vague commercial of all, the "Da, Da, Da" featuring two men who salvage a chair from the sidewalk into their hatchback. The ad, also from Arnold Communications, first ran during the breakthrough coming-out episode of "Ellen" and carried an enormous gay audience who saw the ambiguous commercial.

It was well received. "Ad agencies, the gay community and the community at large all liked it," says Keyes.

Volkswagen says it never intended the ad to be read as gay, but it was okay if people thought so — a first for any major advertiser at that time. In fact, numerous companies fled the program due to the controversy, but not Volkswagen. "Other manufacturers were worried, but we didn't experience any of that. We had a short conversation in-house and with the (ad) agency and decided that it was the right spot for our audience," notes Keyes. "We received lots of positive coverage. There was so much dust, but we never thought this would be a great ratings opportunity, we were in the ("Ellen" ad) rotation already."

Last spring, VW began targeting the gay community for the first time with mainstream ads in OUT and The Advocate. As the Beetle convertible debuts in January, the company intends to go strong into gay media next year too, though it is not yet expecting to create gay-specific ads. "We haven't looked at a need for targeted creative. When we debuted the new Beetle back in '98, we didn't show people because we didn't want to stereotype the car," says Keyes. Noting the universality of the "Da, Da, Da" spot, he adds, "We seem to connect with a lot of different people in our print and TV creative."

The automotive category is getting more serious in the gay market, with the arrival of other major American automakers early next year (DaimlerChrysler and Ford). Companies seeking the loyalty of the market must realize that there is an obvious connection between both their gay and mainstream marketing efforts, or they may hear their own banjo song.

Related links:

From The Commercial Closet
Captive Audience: Cadbury Schweppes' 7UP
Sunday Afternoon: Volkswagen Golf's "Da, Da, Da"
DaimlerChrysler and Ford Give Gay Market A Test Drive

From The Web
For Over The Rainbow, about how prison rape in the US is a gay issue, no joke.

For Study Asks: 'Are Advertisers Missing Out on the Diverse Gay and Lesbian Market?' at GLAAD's site.

For Saturnalia, a Saturn fan site.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

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