The phrase 'skeletons in the closet' took on new meaning this week
as CommercialCloset.org, the controversial archive of gay ads, was
surrounded by issues of copyright and misrepresentation.
The collection, which launched last week, was created by Michael Wilke,
a US business journalist and speaker on the portrayal of gay people in
advertising. The site categorises ads as negative, positive, neutral or
'Ideally, I want agencies to learn from the site and use it as a point
of reference,' Wilke says. 'The mission is to reach out to marketers,
advertisers and agencies and show them that there's a critical mass of
this material. Once you look at the ads, it shows you not only society's
acceptance of the lesbian and gay community, but also their perception
However, questions have been raised as to how the material arrived on
Wilke's site in the first place. His career as a journalist at
Advertising Age and Inside Media has allowed him to develop
long-standing relationships with advertising agencies and their PR
companies in the US. However, a source at one agency complained to
Campaign that Wilke was using material supplied to him at Advertising
Age without permission.
Client concerns would most likely centre on the use of ads that have
never been aired, such as Ogilvy & Mather's 'male kiss', which was
rejected by Guinness.
There are also complaints that the site does not show the context in
which the spots were broadcast. Though the range of ads is surprisingly
wide, from Ikea's 1994 US spot showing a gay couple shopping for a
table, to O&M's Impulse spot, few are instantly recognisable as they
were selectively aired.
There is also scepticism over the categorisation of ads imposed by
This is very subjective, and results in some apparently innocent ads
being interpreted as gay portrayals. A Mars ad for M&Ms, created by BBDO
Worldwide, shows a green M&M walking down a street and being
wolf-whistled by men.
When a woman compliments the sweet, she is told to, 'get a handbag.'
Wilke interprets the spot as portraying a lesbian and has classed it as
He insists this is the class agencies should aim for. Positive
portrayals usually support the gay lifestyle itself, rather than
Negative portrayals include the classic gay stereotypes of hustlers,
queens and leathermen and the 'surprise, it's a man' approach to
'The goal is to achieve a situation where gay people are shown and
treated normally, with none of the shock or jokes that make people
remember the ad,' Wilke says.
While Lowe Lintas comes off worst in Wilke's ratings system, with the
most ads ranked as negative, Commercial Closet also proves that it's
difficult to make sweeping generalisations about networks' records.
A US Heineken spot showing two men embarrassed after their hands touch
while watching sports TV is classed as negative. A British spot
featuring a young man telling his dad of his homosexuality gets a
There is no real correlation between regions either. Both Europe and the
US have approximately the same number of negative portrayals as
Wilke defends his use of ads under the 'fair use' terms of copyright
law, arguing that the work is being used on an educational basis, and he
is not making money from it. Agencies would most likely have to
challenge this in order to prosecute the copyright issue.
Wilke shows few signs of retreat. He has received donations of services
from media companies and has a donor who has provided a seed money grant
of dollars 50,000. Future plans include a documentary and a book based
on the site.