GAY MEDIA REPORT: ADS - A GAY-FREE ZONE/Although positive portrayals of gay life have reached the mainstream, the media have yet to lose their homophobia, Peter Tatchell says

We’ve come a long way in the past ten years. When even the Archers has a gay character, you know lesbian and gay people are making serious inroads into the mainstream.

We’ve come a long way in the past ten years. When even the Archers

has a gay character, you know lesbian and gay people are making serious

inroads into the mainstream.

Although a UK ad campaign featuring gays or lesbians in a positive light

has yet to run, a few recent ads have hinted at homosexuality in a

constructive way. Witness Guinness’s ’kiss’, the Eurostar press ad

featuring a single-sex couple holding hands, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s

TV spot for Lynx showing a woman attracting admiring and sensual looks

from women in the street after using her boyfriend’s aftershave.

Yet there still remain many homo-free zones. No major high street

company uses gay couples to advertise its products, the number of out

British sports stars is zero, and there is not one openly gay mainstream

newspaper editor or FT-SE 100 director. Tolerance has its limits.

Mark Whelan, a director for the think-tank company, Ideas Exchange,

believes ads such as the above ’are knowing, respectful nods to gays and


’The media are more gay-friendly than they were,’ he explains, ’and

young people are more used to gay icons. Targeting the gay community

through ads showing a gay couple is just a case of over-egging the

point. A gay person has other points of reference than just his or her

sexuality. Advertisers and agencies should be aware that it is important

to paint a canvas that is a recognisable environment people can relate

to whether they are gay or straight. Advertising is catching up with

other media, although clients should get out more.’

Mark Earls, head of planning at Bates Dorland, believes agencies and

clients are not completely to blame. ’Research gets people to ask the

significance of using someone of colour or sexual preference in an ad,’

he says. ’If you show a man using a traditional woman’s product, this

signifies to many consumers that the man is gay. Consumers tend to be

more conservative in research - especially if it is done in groups -

than they are in real life. You tend to miss out on the individuals in

group research. Using a gay person in an ad is very obvious and it could

look superficial. It would also attract media attention and many

agencies and clients would want to avoid the unnecessary noise.’

Julian Alexander, publisher of the free gay magazine, Thud, is more

optimistic about the use of gays and lesbians in ads. ’The ad industry

is slowly putting aside deeply ingrained prejudice against the gay press

while realising that associating a product or brand with gays need not

alienate straight consumers. Witness the recent flurry of TV ads

starring gay characters - or at least parodies of them. Gay consumers

are well-known for their love of creativity and innovation. Agencies

should create topical, innovative and creative campaigns to reach this

market sector,’ he suggests.

The same mixed fortunes are evident in press coverage of gay issues.

Today you rarely see anything as vicious as the Sun’s 1986 feature,

’Perverts to blame for the killer plague’. Today’s newspaper homophobia

is more subtle, but the quality broadsheets are often just as guilty as

the tabloids.

Terry Sanderson, the author of Mediawatch - the Treatment of Male and

Female Homosexuality in the British Media, believes ’press homophobia is

generally less crude than it was in the 80s, but there’s still not much

sympathy for gay people in the national dailies’.

Even the gay-positive TV soaps have had a chequered history of


In 1996, Tony and Simon of EastEnders had their kiss cut to a fleeting

peck. Two years earlier, the lesbian smooch on Brookside between Beth

and Margaret was dropped from the omnibus edition.

The trend of gay people coming out in soaps reflects real life, where

increasing numbers of people are declaring their sexuality. Celebrities

are flinging open the closet doors. From the radio DJs Kevin Greening

and Paul Gambaccini, to the TV entertainers, Dale Winton and Michael

Barrymore, pop stars like Jimi Somerville and Skin from Skunk Anansie,

and MPs such as Chris Smith, gay role-models make it easier for people

to accept their sexuality. But there are 20 times as many celebrities

still in the closet. Their secrecy is, perhaps, a more telling signifier

of the ambiguous status of the queer nation.

Despite the huge growth in gay visibility, there has been no significant

homosexual law reform since the partial decriminalisation of sex between

men in 1967. The reduction of the gay age of consent from 21 to 18

merely reinforced inequality and underscored our continuing treatment as

second-class citizens.

But public opinion has progressed. The number of people who believe gay

sex is wrong has fallen by more than a third in the past decade,

according to a survey published by the Health Education Authority. In

1987, 74 per cent of people thought homosexuality was ’always or mostly

wrong’. By late last year, the figure had fallen to 44 per cent. When

specific equality reforms are proposed, however, support tends to

decline. Last October’s NOP poll for Panorama registered that only 35

per cent were in favour of reducing the gay age of consent to 16.

The past decade has seen a strong cultural shift towards a greater

acceptance of lesbians and gay men but attitudes remain contradictory.

We may have come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

Peter Tatchell campaigns with the gay rights group, OutRage!, and is the

author of Safer Sexy - the Guide to Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions



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