CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/COMMERCIALCLOSET.ORG - A website on the portrayal of gay people in ads has its critics, Mairi Clark reports

The phrase 'skeletons in the closet' took on new meaning this week

as, 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

'gay vague'.

'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

of it.'

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

specific products.

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

positive score.

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.


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