Kelly Sans Culotte


Same-Sex Marriage Ads
Dominated 2004
Anti-gay ads take the cake.
By Michael Wilke

Kenneth Cole ad pro gay marriage. Click to enlarge.

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FEB. 10, 2005. The 2004 election year was a hot time for gay marriage in American advertising — if you count everyone against it.

Anti-gay marriage amendments to state constitutions were on the ballots in eleven states, while the battle over a proposed federal amendment banning it raged nationwide. All of the campaigns produced advertising, both the citizens and politicians hostile to the idea, as well as gay organizations fighting for it. Including several corporate advertisers weighing in, over a hundred ads on same-sex marriage were produced in 2004 alone.

Negative-rated commercials in the Commercial Closet archive nearly doubled for 2004, with an increase of 90 percent. Of the 87 ads rated by Commercial Closet for last year, 40 (45.9 percent) fell into the negative category, compared to only 21 (19 percent) in 2003. Oregon was an advertising-heavy battleground, with a strong TV presence of both gay and anti-gay forces, while mostly negative ads turned up in North Carolina, Oklahoma, Utah, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Over and over again, political candidates running for state or national office — Republican and Democrat, male and female — touted in their ads that they voted against gay marriage or worked to "protect the sanctity of marriage." More negative ads chimed in from anti-gay forces including the Christian fundamentalist Focus on the Family and Americans United to Preserve Marriage. Many of these were against Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry.

Left-leaning, Kerry-supporting and LGBT organizations fought back, led by the Human Rights Campaign, which ran twenty-two ads. GLAAD, in Massachusetts, Stonewall Columbus in Ohio, and the Constitution Defense League in Missouri also turned to advertising.

In Canada, where full marriage for lesbians and gay men may soon be approved nationally, pro-gay organizations Canadians for Equal Marriage and Equal Marriage for Same-Sex Couples were the strongest advocates.

MTV addressed the marriage issue in its ongoing, diversity-oriented, Fight for Your Rights series. One of the six featured a young man stopping and asking people everywhere for "permission to marry Megan." The ending asks viewers, "How would you feel if you had to ask 260 million people for the right to marry?" Others in the series perversely linked piercing, and pairs of hot dogs and donuts to same-sex marriage.

Responding to the hot topic, some corporate advertisers chimed in too. Fashion brand Kenneth Cole created a print ad showing two men holding hands, saying, "52 percent of Americans think same-sex marriage doesn't deserve a good reception. Are you putting us on?" Of course, the text has a double meaning and the men wear watches and black shirts by the designer, along with their wedding bands.

Kenneth Cole's gay marriage ad is part of a larger issues-driven campaign that looks at HIV, affirmative action, the deficit, censorship, and the presidential election (partisanship was carefully avoided). The marriage ad ran in both gay media and the magazine GQ, though it is still rare for advertisers to run gay-specific ads in both general media and gay media. Since 1994, Kenneth Cole has created advertising sensitive to AIDS and gay issues, positioned as clever one-liner comments from Cole himself.

Specific properties of Radisson and W Hotels have carried advertisements featuring same-sex wedding ceremonies, an important source of business for them. Promoting its "WOW Vows," the W Los Angeles showed two grooms atop a wedding cake with the headline, "Come celebrate your vows ... in a romantic world of wonder." Radisson Hotel New Orleans showed two men holding hands wearing wedding bands with the headline "Committed," though the individual hotel's web site only reflects opposite-sex weddings. Since 2003, W Hotels have also run corporate advertising in the gay market, but Radisson has not.

Two hundred year-old Boston jeweler Shreve, Crump and Low ran print ads featuring wedding bands and carrying the headline, "This Is Love. It's Not Up For A Vote." Two years earlier, the store initiated ads in the gay community with a headline putting a twist on old conventional wisdom, "Not all the good ones are gay or taken. Some are both."

Faced with a difficult political situation and a difficult history to overcome, Coors Brewing Co. placed ads in gay media explicitly stating, "Let's be clear. We don't support amending the Constitution." In addition, it explained, "This election year, there's a lot of national debate on issues that are important to the LGBT community, including the Federal Marriage Amendment. And, as a political candidate, Pete Coors has expressed his personal position on this issue. Coors Brewing Company's position on this issue differs from Pete Coors.'"

With the reintroduction of the Federal Marriage Amendment, and several more states preparing to vote on amending their constitutions to address the issue, more debate via advertising is surely on the way. Will corporate advertisers continue to follow as well?

The Commercial Closet — bringing lesbian, gay, bi and trans sensitivity to corporate advertising.

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