Clad in bright yellow short shorts, a speed-walker swishes down the sidewalk. Suddenly Mr. T drives up in a truck and machine-guns the walker with a Snickers bar, calling him a "disgrace to the man race," then implores viewers to “get some nuts!” This is the latest questionable commercial created by Omnicom Group advertising agencies. You may know their work: They were behind the 2007 Super Bowl Snickers spot that showed two men freaking out after accidentally kissing -- and attacking each other with wrenches in an alternative online version. And in a Dodge ad from another Omnicom agency, a macho man snidely calls a male Tinker Bell–like character a “silly little fairy,” only to have the pixie turn him into a sweater-clad metrosexual -- a silly little fairy in his own right.
After seeing the Mr. T commercial, Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield fired off an open letter on AdAge.com to Omnicom CEO John Wren. Garfield called the company’s latest spot a "cartoonish recapitulation" of Matthew Shepard’s murder. Wren didn’t respond (he also declined to speak with The Advocate), but Snickers’ parent company pulled the ad less than a week after Garfield’s essay ran. We caught up with Garfield, a straight man who also works as a media critic for National Public Radio.
What compelled you to write the letter?I’ve taken a very tough stand against the Omnicom agency that created the fairy commercial. And I raised my eyebrows about the first Snickers commercial, mainly on the grounds of stupidity; it was not so much homophobic as about homophobia. That was before I realized there was a wrench attack in the online version. The Mr. T ad was the last straw.
What’s been the response?I’ve gotten support from the gay community, with a few writing, "I’m gay, but I think it’s hilarious," which makes me think of the character in the film Ship of Fools who thought he was immune to the Holocaust because he was well-regarded. If some American gay men think it’s innocuous, God bless ’em, but I think they’re wrong.
Does advertising reflect cultural attitudes or create them?It’s more of a mirror. It not only has a responsibility for decorum, but you’d think advertising could at least not resemble hate speech. Some said I overstated the case when I compared the Mr. T ad to Matthew Shepard. On the contrary, it is a direct parallel -- it depicts doing violence against a person deemed insufficiently masculine.