BOB GARFIELD: The presence of gay characters on television is not limited to the programming. Increasingly in depictions both positive and otherwise, homosexual characters and issues are finding their way into advertising as well. Journalist Michael Wilkie has catalogued these efforts on a web site called commercialcloset.com [MUSIC]
YOUNG WOMAN: Mom, dad, if you're watching - I want you to know I finally found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. Mom and dad, this is Jen.
YOUNG WOMAN: Hi. [BARELY AUDIBLE RESPONSE FROM MOTHER] ANNOUNCER: Show your colors -- Mystik. [sp?]
MAN: Mike Wilkie, that is a pretty extraordinary thing to see on your television, even in -well in this case the year 2000, is it not?
MAN: Well that's actually a, an older commercial from, you know, several years ago. You know it ran on MTV and its audience is a more progressive, younger audience who, you know, really isn't all that concerned with the idea of gay or lesbian people as being an issue -it's - it's sort of a non-issue for that age group.
MAN: Isn't it also true that while there's quite a number of depictions of gay characters, even gay lead characters in television -- prime time television programs for example - that advertising has kind of lagged in that respect.
MAN: It really has, and, and what's true about my entire archive really and even though most of it has happened let's say in the last 6 or 7 years, most of it has only shown in pretty limited arenas. It will have been on MTV only or it may just be in a couple of cities like New York, San Francisco and L.A. or something, and they run briefly and then they're gone! And so a, a lot of people really never see them or even knew that they happened!
MAN: Historically how was homosexuality or at least the suggestion of homosexuality depicted in television commercials?
MAN: Well it, it was more often just a reference -it wasn't actually depicted directly. For example a 1989 commercial from Kellogg's for its Nut 'N Honey Cereal has a - this question - you know - asked of various people and you know it's supposed to be a joke response.
WOMAN: What'll it be?
MAN: Ah - Nuttin, honey.
WOMAN: Mmmmmm! Just dropped by to see me, huh Sugar?
MAN: So it has these various vignettes and in the last one - it's always the last one that this happens in - there's a chuck wagon scene with a bunch of cowboys around a - you know - a campfire or whatever and there's a, a male cook there, and so they come up and ask him that question.
MAN: Hey Cookie! What's for breakfast!?
MAN: Nuttin' Honey! [KELLOG'S NUT 'N HONEY MUSIC]
MAN: And then they all pull their guns out on him -you know - threatening to, to shoot him for presumably calling them "Honey."
MAN: They felt their masculinity threatened by--being called Honey.
BOB GARFIELD: When did the commercial closet first open? Was there a moment of creation?
MAN: Really I, I'd say 1994 with Ikea was a critical turning point in terms of awareness and then interest level in inclusion of lesbian or gay people in, in commercials.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's listen to a little bit of that commercial.
MAN: Well you know we went to Ikea-- cause we thought it was time for a serious dining room table and--
MAN: We have slightly different tastes. I mean Steve is more into country -- it, it frightens me, but at the same time I have compassion.
MAN: [LAUGHS] We've been together about 3 years--
MAN: I met Steve at my sister's wedding--
MAN: Ikea was really a, a groundbreaking advertisement! It was the first time that anyone had included a, a gay couple in a non-humorous way. They, they were meant to sort of depict reality, and it showed two men shopping together and, and frankly it was such a - an unusual idea at the time that it made news around the world!
BOB GARFIELD:All right, now tell me about gay vague advertising. You identify on your web site and have in your writing talked about ads that to one audience may seem perfectly innocuous yet to a gay audience have some sort of-- hidden message.
MAN: Well-- there are different motivations that can happen in the gay vague category. Sometimes it's actually an effort on the part of the advertiser I believe, and other times I think it's more accidental. Now a perfect example of perhaps an accidental one is Volkswagen's da da da commercial - has 2 guys driving around aimlessly in a car on a Sunday afternoon. That commercial debuted on the coming out episode of the Ellen program where she told everyone she was lesbian and so it had a very big gay and gay-friendly audience watching at the time. When it came on, everyone sort of looked at each other and thought w-- are these two guys supposed to be boyfriends? And even though there were no lines in the commercial, there seemed to be a, a little Je ne sais quoi about it that seemed to imply that. Now Volkswagen said we didn't intend for them to come off as gay, but it's okay if you want to think so.
MAN: There's this old joke about the guy in the psychiatrist's office and the psychiatrist is showing him Rorschach inkblots, and the guy describes as he looks at these blots one in a long su-- you know in a succession of you know erotic images. And finally, the psychiatrist says to him well you know Mr. Jones, it looks to me like you have some sort of obsession with sex and the patient replies well you're the one with all the dirty pictures. [LAUGHTER] Michael [LAUGHS] - are there really gay vague ads or are you just-- are you just seeing dirty pictures in ink blots?
MAN: No! Because there are some also that are more intentional in my opinion. In fact, when I was at Ad Age I wrote about Parliament Cigarettes ads - they have this campaign that's of course a long-running campaign in the mainstream media which has a man and a woman in exotic sort of seaside locale, and in gay magazines what they've done is they've added another man into the picture. And one time they actually took that extra step and made it just two men and their dog. After I wrote about it though, they ended up pulling back. Someone later came up to me who had worked with Parliament basically said to me that -that the company was upset after I wrote about it! That, that I had revealed what they were doing to, to the mainstream [LAUGHS] audience out there.
BOB GARFIELD: You outed them.
MAN: I outed them.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael [LAUGHS] Wilkie, thanks very much for joining us.
MAN: You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD:Michael Wilkie is the creator of The Commercial Closet. [MUSIC] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Katya Rogers, Janeen Price and Alicia Zuckerman; engineered by George Edwards and edited by Brooke. We had help from the Keefe brothers, Dylan and John. Kira Deppenbrach and David Serchuk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer, and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.