This week all hell broke loose across the Pond. American network
television broadcast a special episode of Ellen, the US sitcom imported
into Britain by Channel 4, in which the central character ended months
of viewer uncertainty by revealing she was gay.
Being the US equivalent of, say, Coronation Street’s Rita coming out, or
poor Joe in EastEnders confessing that he swings both ways, the US press
has had a field-day over the past few weeks.
Journalists have been pouring forth all forms of invective on the rights
and wrongs of role-model homosexuality, making snide comments about
Ellen’s ’all-pants wardrobe’ and querying whether America is ready or
But behind the scenes something rather more sinister has been going on.
Certain advertisers, which have traditionally bought regular slots in
the sitcom, have boycotted the episode which was screened on 30
Reports suggest that Chrysler, the car giant, cancelled its advertising
from the show, as did J.C. Penney, the clothes retailer, and Wendy’s
McDonald’s, which is ranked as Ellen’s fifth-largest advertiser, was
also said to have backed out. Chrysler justified its move by issuing a
statement claiming that it ’didn’t want to be part of a polarising
When pushed, a spokesman for Touchstone TV, the Walt Disney subsidiary
which makes Ellen, confirmed that ’a few advertisers had pulled out’ but
he refused to surrender any further detail.
This week McDonald’s faced another potential embarrassment in the US
when results from a 30-page study conducted by its agency, Leo Burnett,
revealed the fast-food chain has ’traditionally avoided homosexual
content when possible’ because it is a ’hot topic’ among family values
pressure groups. The report recommends that parameters be set to ensure
McDonald’s ’continues to appear in a suitable environment’.
This begs the question of whether advertisers have a moral
responsibility not to pander to such prejudice. Is it enough for them to
cite such trumped-up excuses that their target audience would be
alienated by association with issues such as homosexuality? Who, for
example could forget Guinness’s famous veto of its ’gay kiss’ commercial
which the drinks giant feared would offend laddish drinkers?
Jaspar Shelbourne, the executive creative director of J. Walter
Thompson, believes such decisions should be based alone on business
criteria. ’This is a very difficult subject and it’s all too easy to say
that advertisers should have a moral responsibility, but it is a
question of priorities.
First and foremost, they have a responsibility to their brand, their
growth, their bottom line and their shareholders. It’s about corporate
survival,’ he says.
That said, he believes most clients are demonstrating increasing
sensitivity to potentially controversial issues these days.
Yet some remain apparently insensitive. An alarming case of apparent
advertiser fascism took place in the supposedly liberal UK market last
year, when Heineken hit the headlines for axing its advertiser-supplied
programming, the late-night Channel 4 strand, Hotel Babylon. A leaked
fax revealed that Heineken believed the Dani Behr-fronted show featured
too many ’negroes’ in the studio audience, which supposedly was not
representative of the brewer’s core market.
But Sholto Douglas-Home, the head of advertising at BT’s personal
communications division, comments: ’It is not an advertiser’s role to be
moral and worthy and supportive of such issues. It’s just important to
be sensitive and cautious and not offend, even though I would obviously
argue that lesbianism is not ’offensive’.’ Paul Woolmington, the
worldwide media director for Ammirati Puris Lintas, who is based in New
York and witnessed the Ellen controversy, says: ’Clients and big
corporations are inherently conservative about such issues because they
do not want to be seen to be supporting them overtly. ’
There may be another, less worthy, reason behind Ellen’s lesbian
It performs reasonably well in the US, but it is not top rating - hence
the ’out of the closet’ episode was subjected to the PR might of ABC
The network busily secured endless TV footage, numerous newspaper column
inches and even the front cover of Time magazine in a bid to raise
Ellen’s profile and boost audiences. And accordingly, ABC hiked its
rates 20 per cent higher than usual for those advertisers wishing to
’This has been blown out of all proportion,’ Woolmington says. ’The
reality is that on any given night in New York, which has 75 different
TV channels, there are several topics that are going to be
controversial. In this particular case, advertiser sensitivity is
unfounded - it’s a normal subject that is treated sensitively. It is the
hype that has created the notoriety and caused the nervousness.’
Whether such ’nervousness’ will apply in the UK remains to be seen.
Ellen is not running here but, as the Touchstone TV spokesman points
out, despite certain advertisers walking, the show in the US was still
Where this broad-minded programming lost revenue through client caution,
it seemed to gain through a bolder brigade of advertisers keen to
benefit from the episode’s notoriety and no doubt highly inflated
ratings. Controversy, it seems, this time paid off.