Washing powder, biscuits, supermarkets and airlines are not known
for taking risks with their advertising. Such blue-chip clients
historically seek out a happy housewife to promote their products. They
nestle safely in their middle-England heartland and leave the daring
stuff to niche brands targeting young folk.
But middle-England’s tastes are changing. The suburbs may not be ready
to embrace cross-dressers as sons-in-laws or neighbours but, with the
safe barrier of a television screen between them, Mr and Mrs Average are
happy to commune with ’alternative’ lifestyles.
Gay icons are no longer confined to gay audiences. They appeal to the
Enter Boy George, Julian Clary, Michael Barrymore, Eddie Izzard and Dale
Winton. These men - among others - have captured the hearts of
mainstream television viewers and blue-chip advertisers are eager to
capitalise on the warmth of feeling they generate.
It is even acceptable to make a direct reference to their sexuality.
Graham Norton is on our screens in a pounds 5 million campaign to
advertise McVitie’s biscuits which are now available in a cardboard
tube. In three different scenarios, Norton catches members of the public
indulging in mindless activities and tells them that they should ’get
Using a similar pun, a new Aer Lingus poster campaign, created by Abbott
Mead Vickers BBDO, uses the image of Boy George next to the words: ’Be
the first to come out.’ The ad is promoting the airline’s new fast-track
security clearance service.
Not all advertisers who use gays as spokespeople feel they have to lean
so heavily on innuendo. Michael Barrymore’s catchline for the budget
retailer Kwik Save was ’because we’re cheap, you’re cheerful’.
He was hired for his straightforward popularity rather than his saucy
The same goes for Eddie Izzard, a renowned cross-dresser, who was hired
by the Government to promote its Gift Aid 2000 charity donation scheme
in a high-profile campaign devised by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe.
And when BMP DDB was looking for a cast of well-known and loved
characters for the 1998 launch of the TV channel ONdigital, Julian Clary
and Dale Winton slipped in neatly alongside other mainstream
personalities such as Richard Attenborough, Ulrika Jonsson and Jonathan
Philippa Roberts, the account director on the business at BMP, says: ’We
were looking to portray the face of popular TV. Winton and Clary were
not chosen to represent anything in particular.’
However, the appearance of the gay celebrities in the ad was startling
enough to interest Gay TV, which invited Mark Sands, the ONdigital
marketing director, to discuss the issue on air.
ONdigital has since moved away from the use of celebrities and has
chosen to feature real people for its latest ’video diaries’ campaign.
This has resulted in homosexuals being dropped from the advertising.
’In the new campaign, we have not gone for a perfect, politically
correct cross section,’ an ONdigital spokeswoman says. ’Our brand
appeals to everyone. We don’t discriminate.’
While an overtly gay lifestyle is still swept under the carpet by major
TV advertisers, familiar faces such as Norton and Winton are decidedly
safe and mainstream.
Gerry Moira, the executive creative director of Publicis, the agency
responsible for the McVitie’s campaign, says: ’If you’re looking for
unused stars, there aren’t that many left. I don’t know if Norton’s
gayness has kept him out of other ads but his sexual inclination wasn’t
a factor in our choice - it was his cheeky personality. The endline came
Stephen Meade, the client services director at Publicis, says: ’Five
years ago HHCL & Partners launched a Bhs campaign that used Julian Clary
because of the impact it had on audiences. The campaign used obvious
innuendo and lots of ’fnar fnar’ jokes. But gays are now totally
normalised so there is no shock value left.’
Lilly Savage starred in an Ogilvy & Mather commercial for the Ford
Escort ’What do you do in yours?’ campaign. Patrick Collister, who was
the agency’s creative director at the time, says that Ford, despite
being a traditional advertiser, had no problems with the casting and its
’Ford has a convincing handle on its target group,’ Collister says.
Moira adds: ’Cross-dressing is a great British tradition. There is still
a difference in the mind of the British public between being a queen and
being a gay activist.’
Remember the Saatchi & Saatchi National Lottery ad featuring the man
caught out wearing a little black dress? And the Levi’s spot with the
beautiful transvestite using an electric razor in the back of a
Both ads captured the imagination of the public in a way that was
beneficial to the brand.
And by featuring a gay couple in a recent TV commercial, the
Unilever-owned Impulse brand went where, only a few years previously,
Guinness had so famously feared to tread.
The fashion world is well ahead of the pack when it comes to
Christian Dior’s current press campaign, for example, is oozing with
subtle but undisguised erotic encounters between two women.
We are still a long way off from seeing such images used in mainstream
advertising. For now, the UK public is unlikely to embrace anything more
extreme than the acceptable face of ’alternative’ lifestyles.