Can Super Bowl Ads Evolve?

BY Michelle Garcia

February 04 2011 1:10 PM ET

Last year 106.5 million people gathered around the television to watch the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-17 in the Super Bowl. While most are there for the game and some wings, catching the high-priced Super Bowl ads is inescapable. No other event celebrates American capitalism so effectively: The top companies in the country, if not the world, fork over an average of $3 million (on top of production costs) to air a 30-second ad, hoping to capture the attention of one third of the U.S. population. While this is a chance for advertisers to show their best work, should it be at the expense of making gay people a punch line?

"Sometimes advertisers present images that cast LGBT people — and in the case of Super Bowl ads, usually gay men — in an unfair light," says Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "Usually those images are rooted in tired stereotypes that perpetuate misconceptions about our community and in some cases have even promoted violence against LGBT or LGBT-perceived people."

Take, for instance, two user-generated spots pitched by fans for Doritos'  “Crash the Super Bowl” contest that made the rounds on the Internet last month. After varied public reaction (some people found the overtly gay characters and messages a bit too stereotypical; others said they were simply funny), Frito-Lay director of public relations Chris Kuechenmeister said the ads weren't in the running to air on television. While the spots used stereotypical gay characters or the old "sex-starved in the sauna" scenario, it seems as though they were meant to be a wink and a nod toward gay people, but it didn't quite work out.

Mike Wilke, an advertising consultant and founder of the Commercial Closet Association (which has since been absorbed by GLAAD), says male-driven advertising has shown evidence of a slight change in attitudes among ad directors in recent years.

"I think there isn't as much evolution across the board as there could be as far as a changing audience," he says. "But it does seem that there is an appreciation for the fact that homophobia exists."

While Ikea ads of two dads picking out a crib for their baby likely won't be airing during the big game, Wilke did recall a Pepsi spot that featured an attractive man strutting down the street, unabashedly catching the attention of every man and woman he passed.

On the contrary, Wilke also remembers an ad for Bridgestone tires that showed a driver trying to run down flamboyant fitness icon Richard Simmons (who is not openly gay).

"Things are still a mixed bag," he says of the ad. "What was a surprise to me was that the director of advertising at Bridgestone had spent years attracting gay media, including advertising for years in The Advocate. In this case, it seems like it wasn't a matter of intentional homophobia, but a matter of accident, and a mixed review within the gay community of whether it was an acceptable message."













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