2 min

It Gets Better, but not always in advertising

When marketers use us to sell, we don't always end up looking good

On Oct 4, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) presented an Amplifier Award to Google Chrome for its TV commercial about It Gets Better. The Amplifier Awards are meant to encourage companies to reflect the diversity of LGBT people in advertising.
The commercial gave an emotional 60-second overview of It Gets Better with fairly subtle reference to Google Chrome. But if you watched closely, you could see a demonstration of how It Gets Better benefited from Google products like YouTube, Chrome and Google itself.
So, does Google deserve an award for promoting the diversity of LGBT people in advertising? Definitely.
But let’s not forget that in advertising there are always ulterior motives. Since Google doesn’t have any special affinity for LGBT people and we don’t make up a dominant part of its customer base, why did the company spend all this money promoting It Gets Better?
The first reason is that It Gets Better was a hugely successful YouTube campaign that generated enormous participation and saved some lives. So Google was eager to show how its products made all this possible. Secondly, Google has always had a kind of geeky image, especially when compared to the very human image of its archrival, Apple. So by cozying up with It Gets Better, Google repositioned itself as more open-minded and caring.
At the same time, It Gets Better reached an enormous new audience for free – the commercial debuted in Glee to almost 14 million people. So it was a win-win for both organizations. Although, some would say that by endorsing Google products, It Gets Better lost a little innocence and credibility.
Now, let’s see how a Canadian marketer used lesbians to sell cars. During the Vancouver Olympics, Hyundai brazenly ran a commercial that was applauded for the way it portrayed lesbians. The ad showed a gorgeous woman so impressed with a Hyundai that she leaves the driver her phone number on a note sealed with a lipstick kiss. Later, the female driver finds the note, likes it a lot and puts it in her purse.
So yes, a positive portrayal of the diversity of lesbians. But not so fast. Is Hyundai targeting lesbian car buyers here? Nope. That niche market is too small for mass-media advertising. The curious thing about lesbianism is that it can be used to attract an entirely unrelated audience – namely straight young men, who represent a huge car-buying audience. So what appears to be a lighthearted and accepting recognition of lesbianism is in fact a tale of possible girl-on-girl action used to arouse the attention of male consumers.
But this wasn’t the first Canadian ad to use homosexuality to attract mainstream male viewers. A 2009 Mr Sub commercial showed a father announcing he’s gay to his huge family of biblically named offspring. When a daughter asks, “You mean, like ‘gay’ gay?” the father says, “Like super, super gay.” Then the announcer says, “Not everyone likes surprises, so count on Mr Sub, a Canadian classic for over 40 years.”
Not only is gayness trotted out to amuse the young straight male target audience, the commercial trivializes a potentially devastating family situation. Fortunately, Mr Sub received so many complaints, it pulled the ad and fired its agency.
As I wrote, in advertising there are always ulterior motives. While Google managed to use LGBT people constructively to sell its products, Hyundai and Mr Sub felt they had to reinforce negative stereotypes to get their audiences to pay attention.
Thanks to organizations like GLAAD, LGBT people are making more appearances in ads these days. But it’s still easy for us to end up as collateral damage as marketers do whatever it takes to sell their products.