Made by the Media: Pink is the New Black

By Ana-Isabel Nölke (Editor)

Apple employees are seen joining a pride march in a corporate video on YouTube; a same-sex family is featured in Coca Cola’s ‘Beautiful America’ Superbowl commercial; even Lynx includes a same-sex kiss in its most recent deodorant ad. After the Stonewall riots in 1969 (a series of violent demonstrations against police raids of gay bars near Manhattan which led to increased visibility and heightened awareness of the gay community) companies began to become increasingly aware of the profitability of appealing to gay consumers. [i] Promptly, marketers started targeting mythical ‘dream consumers’ - white, middle-class, gay men with double income, but no kids to spend it on. As sexual stigma adapted to societal changes, gays became a quasi-ethnic minority group of business interest. [ii]

 Ads have a considerable influence on the way stigmata are formed and spread in societies [iii]. They are directly linked to the construction and maintenance of social identities in general – such as ideals of what it means to be a woman or a man – and are thus a force to be reckoned with in the social legitimization of stigmatised groups, [iv];[v] More than that, they educate us about socially accepted lifestyles, as well as teaching us societal values and norms that ultimately influence the way we see ourselves. [vi] Imagine a young boy or girl who will eventually grow up to identify as LGBT, but has not ‘come out’ yet. Sexuality is something that can be hidden and children often grow up without a point of reference or guidance. They thus may turn to Queer portrayals in popular media, which can shape their sense of what the world and the Queer community expect of them.

In the past, ads were mainly launched through gay media channels; mostly magazines targeted at the community. [vii] Some mainstream brands, especially in high-end fashion and alcohol markets, started to employ ‘gay vague’ images in ads: these would show ambiguous portrayals of same-sex intimacy or LGBT symbolisms in the hopes of attracting gay consumer’s attention without alienating the heterosexual majority. In the past few years, however, capitalist societies have experienced radical societal changes in their attitudes towards sexual stigma, which has been ascribed in part to greater visibility of Queer themes and characters in popular media. According to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the number of ads that included explicit gay characters or themes doubled from 2012 to 2013 and the trend is on going. [viii] With increasing social acceptance, advertising has slowly moved away from ‘gay-vague’ ads, to more explicit portrayals. [ix]

Portrayals of LGBTs in ads are, however, strongly criticised. Academics and activists alike have warned that the type of ads we see today enable integration only for a socially accepted type of gayness and thus reinforce the stigma against those who do not adhere to it [x]. Should we not be concerned about the fact that the majority of ads targeted at the Queer community make avid use of stereotypes? Over 90% of ads up until 2010 featured the formulaic white, middle-class, bare chested, handsome gay man, [xi] with the rest using sexualised portrayals of hyper-feminine ‘lipstick’ lesbians. [xii] These stereotypical portrayals enforce an image of being gay that has become acceptable within the heterosexual mainstream and binary gender roles, thereby fuelling the invisibility of other non-conforming types of the Queer spectrum. [xiii]

Interestingly, most studies on the topic to date state that ‘gay people like gay ads,’ even if they are stereotypical. [xiv] Make a gay ad and the community will reward you with their money and loyalty. Our history of stigmatisation makes us more susceptible to public shows of social acceptance. Why then have companies such as McDonalds and Starbucks faced severe backlash of LGBT consumers and activists? Only this February the Australia and New Zealand National Bank (ANZ) had a number of their branches splashed with pink paint after they revealed a number of sparkling ‘GAYTM’s around downtown Sydney to celebrate pride month. Activists’ flyers read: “Pinkwashing: a term used to describe how the LGBTIQ struggle is co-opted to whitewash unethical behaviour.” The term was first used to condemn Israel’s practice of marketing itself as a gay-friendly destination, but has come to signify any activity of claiming diversity and acceptance of the Queer community for ulterior motives. McDonalds faced a similar fate back in 2010 when it launched the first gay television ad in 2010. A great number of LGBT identifying people loved it. A great number of them called for a boycott. As a friend of mine asked when discussing the topic: “Can they ever do it right?”

On the one hand, we need media portrayals to foster the acceptance of stigmatised groups, but, on the other hand, these images are often stereotypical. Even if they are not, they might be perceived as tokenistic shows of support of the latest diversity campaign of brand x or y. I don’t want to make a judgement about these questions in this article – after all, to at least try and answer them is why I am currently researching this. Personally, I do believe, however, that the answer lies in each individual and is influenced by how we grew up and our own experiences of stigma or with people who identify as LGBT. Therefore I invite you to think about it, to be a bit more aware of the medial portrayals you see, and to form your own opinion about their effects. The media permeates everything we do. Even if we don’t like to admit it, it often has a massive effect on the way we see the world, ourselves and those around us. It teaches us to differentiate what we believe is right from what is wrong. To ignore this effect is to be oblivious to the ways in which we are shaped and defined by it.

[i] L. Peñaloza, “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Going Shopping! A Critical Perspective on the Accommodation of Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Marketplace,” in Gays, Lesbians, and Consumer Behavior: Theory, Practice, and Research Issues in Marketing, ed. D. L. Wardlow (New York: The Haworth Press, Inc., 1996), 9–42.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Thomas J. Scheff, Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory (Transaction Publishers, 1971); Rachel a. Smith, “Language of the Lost: An Explication of Stigma Communication,” Communication Theory 17, no. 4 (November 2007): 462–85.

[iv] Robert V. Kozinets, “Utopian Enterprise: Articulating the Meanings of Star Trek’s Culture of Consumption,” Journal of Consumer Research 28, no. 1 (2001): 67–88; Peñaloza, “We’re Here, We’re Queer, and We’re Going Shopping! A Critical Perspective on the Accommodation of Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Marketplace.”

[v] Vickie Rutledge Shields, “Selling the Sex That Sells: Mapping the Evolution of Gender Advertising Research across Three Decades,” Communication Yearbook 20 (1997): 71–110.

[vi] Sidney J. Levy, “Interpreting Consumer Mythology: A Structural Approach to Consumer Behavior,” The Journal of Marketing, 1981, 49–61.

[vii] Wan-Hsiu Sunny Tsai, “Gay Advertising as Negotiations: Representations of Homosexual, Bisexual and Transgender People in Mainstream Commercials,” in Gender and Consumer Behaviour, ed. Linda Scott and Craig Thompson, vol. 7 (Madison, WI: Association for Consumer Research, 2004).

[viii] Caroline Winter, “Gay-Themed Ads Over the Years,”, February 28, 2013,

[ix] Tsai, “Gay Advertising as Negotiations: Representations of Homosexual, Bisexual and Transgender People in Mainstream Commercials.”

[x] Steven M. Kates, “The Dynamics of Brand Legitimacy: An Interpretive Study in the Gay and Lesbian Community,” Journal of Consumer Research 31, no. September (2004): 455–64.

[xi] Al Marshal, “Visual Images in Advertising to the Gay Market,” 2000.

[xii] Rosalind Gill, “Beyond the Sexualization of Culture: An Intersectional Analysis of Sixpacks’,midriffs’ and Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising,” Sexualities 12, no. 2 (2009): 137–60.

[xiii] Marshal, “Visual Images in Advertising to the Gay Market”; Tsai, “Gay Advertising as Negotiations: Representations of Homosexual, Bisexual and Transgender People in Mainstream Commercials.”

[xiv] Janet L. Borgerson et al., “The Gay Family in the Ad: Consumer Responses to Non-Traditional Families in Marketing Communications,” Journal of Marketing Management 22, no. 9–10 (November 2006): 955–78.