When gay travel writer Michael Luongo noticed an advertisement for the gay hookup site Squirt in his New York City neighbourhood, he welcomed its sexual imagery.
“In a city like New York there’s so much that goes on,” he says. “We’ve seen it all, so who cares if there is an ad with shirtless men?”
The Squirt ad features a man wearing an unbuttoned shirt next to a man in a business suit, with the slogan, “Meet Mr Right Now.”
“In New York City we used to see so many things in the ’70s and ’80s,” Luongo says. “In Times Square you had prostitutes and porn theatres everywhere. You’d see all kinds of things. What’s interesting to me is that today you are seeing more of these gay ads. I don’t remember if it was Grindr or another hookup site that also ran ads here but I saw that and thought that was kind of neat.”
Other major US cities, including Dallas and Miami, were less hospitable to the Squirt billboards.
A billboard featuring three shirtless men embracing with the words “Non-Stop Cruising” offended some Dallas residents, including some members of the gay community who shared their concerns with Fox 4 News.
“The main thing that bothers me is that the gay community is trying to, you know, we’re trying to get equal rights,” John Anderson told Fox 4 News. “We’re trying to get marriage rights, things like that. And something like this being put up in a public place, it’s completely immoral.”
Anderson did not respond to Daily Xtra’s requests for comment.
“New York is a very different city than the rest of the country, that in itself is the answer,” Luongo says. “New York is very different from Dallas or most places in Florida. We’re not as squeamish about things.”
An April 3 editorial by writer and columnist Tod Robberson criticized the Squirt billboards in the Dallas Morning News.
“It’s all about general community standards and I just felt this crossed the line at a time when people are really debating and absorbing the idea of committed same-sex relationships,” he tells Daily Xtra. “Texas is moving toward acceptance of that, but we still have this very conservative Christian community fighting back and it’s fighting back in state legislature. So you have that dynamic, and for a billboard to show up during that discussion sets the whole movement back.”
Robberson says ads that might not faze people in places like San Francisco or New York may cause more of an uproar in Dallas.
“The percentage of the gay community representing the overall community is much smaller than it is in San Francisco,” he says. “San Francisco is a much smaller city than Dallas and the percentage of gays living in San Francisco is much higher. They probably have much bigger political clout there than here, which is not to say they don’t have a lot of political clout in Dallas.”
Squirt’s ad campaign returned to Miami in May, six months after it was pulled from bus shelters following complaints about their sexual nature.
In November 2014, Squirt ads featuring two shirtless men in an embrace accompanied by the words “Hot ’n Horny Hookups” or “Non-Stop Hookups” were placed in bus shelters near popular gay establishments in Miami. The ads were removed after a mother complained to the City of Miami.
Miami resident Marta Viciedo told Local 10 News that the ad was “unnecessarily over-sexualized” and located in a public right-of-way frequented by children and families. “If my kids came out here and said, ‘Oh Mom, what’s a hot and horny hookup?’ — why do I need to explain that to a seven-year-old?” she asked.
“We just want to have the same treatment as any straight sexy ad would have,” Pink Triangle Press (PTP) responded in a change.org petition to have the ads restored. “Lots of straight-themed ads are as sexy as ours: look at Step Up Revolution, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Guess, Viktor & Rolf and Calvin Klein ads. If these ads can be on streets across America, we don’t understand why two men embracing cannot.”
PTP owns and operates Squirt and publishes Daily Xtra.
Several of the comments posted to the change.org petition challenged what many perceived to be a double standard in public advertisements. “We as gays get bombarded with sexualised images of a heterosexual nature 24/7 so we should be allowed to appropriately advertise as well,” said Michael Brooks of Brisbane, Australia.
According to Attila Szatmari, digital business director of PTP, the petition received 1,800 signatures.
“I just looked at the stats from the back-end of our change.org for petition and most of the users who signed the petition from the US were from Florida, so I think that’s a good representation that they supported the campaign,” Szatmari says.
Outfront Media, which operates the billboards in question, subsequently reached out to Squirt about reinstating the campaign — but with revised art.
Squirt complied and submitted a new ad featuring two clothed men, a smart phone displaying the squirt.org homepage and the words “Meet Mr Right Now.”
Szatmari says Outfront still requested that one of the usernames on the smart phone be changed from “HottStuffinu” and that a profile image of a man sniffing underwear be removed.
The controversy has raised questions among some members of Florida’s gay community about whose sexual imagery can be displayed in public.
“The only question I would raise would be how appropriate it is to have an ad for a dating website on a highway billboard, regardless of whether it’s a straight or gay ad,” says Hurtado de Mendoza, deputy director of the SAVE Foundation, an LGBT rights organization in Florida.
“Is it appropriate? I’m only asking the question. Is it less appropriate to feature two scantily clad men on a billboard than a scantily man and female? I don’t know the answer to the question but I think it’s a fair question.”
Carly Zipp, communications director for Outfront Media, says her company tries to work with all advertisers to ensure that their ads are appropriate in the communities they serve. “If something is too sexual or too sexually offensive then we have a right to ask an advertiser to revise that,” she says.
When asked how Outfront decides whether or not something is offensive, Zipp said the company won’t release that information to the press, and instead forwarded a written statement to Daily Xtra.
“Outfront Media reserves the right to accept, amend, or reject copy on its outdoor displays in its sole and absolute discretion,” reads the statement. “Our decision is carefully considered and involves a subjective analysis based upon many factors, including but not limited to the proposed copy itself and the areas where it is proposed to be placed. We asked the advertiser, squirt.org to amend very minor details of the ad that we felt were inappropriate for billboards.”
Outfront seems to apply this standard to sex in general — not just gay sex.
In April 2015, Outfront rejected a New York subway ad that showed a woman without pants, with her legs wrapped around a shirtless man, on the grounds that it was “too suggestive,” according to the New York Times.
Szatmari says that sexual imagery in public ads helps normalize conversations about sex and sexuality.
“I think it makes the coming-out process easier if you see these sort of ads in the public,” he says. “The common comments from parents — usually moms — is why they should have to explain these ads to their kids. It’s important that they explain to their kids that it’s okay to be gay.
“But generally the issue is that parents are afraid to talk to their kids about sex,” he says. “And nowadays younger people are getting interested in sex earlier than before and I think it’s important that they talk to kids about sex and not just try to hide it. They just need to select age-appropriate language.”