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Lesbian Ads Still More Male Fantasy

by Michael Wilke

We all knew it: "Lesbian Chic" wasn't real.

It was a moment the media proclaimed a few years ago after Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres came out and shared their girlfriends with the rest of the world.

But lesbian chic never really took the advertising world by storm--or many other worlds for that matter. Although advertising is slowly including gay people more often than ever before, it primarily remains limited to depictions of young, white men.

The truth is, the idea of lesbians as "fashionable" remains a difficult sell since stereotypes prevail. Major advertising categories for women, such as makeup and fashion, don't target lesbians because they supposedly have no interest in such things. Ironically, stereotypes actually are increasingly working in favor of gay men for marketing (since they allegedly prefer fashion, art, theater and gourmet food).

With mainstream advertising, on the rare occasion that lesbians make an appearance, it is usually as a fantasy for straight men.

"What (straight) guy doesn't have a fantasy of two women?" asks Jordan Mendelsohn, creative director of Mendelsohn/Zien Advertising, Los Angeles.

Mendelsohn created a controversial eight-week campaign in California for West Coast retailer Clothestime in 1996. The work included a cross-dressing man as well as a woman who makes a pass at another in a danceclub restroom.

As a woman checks her makeup in the mirror, another walks into the restroom and gives her a look-over with the growling sound of a wild tiger added. She then says, "I like your dress." The woman at the mirror thanks her and then the other says seductively, "I mean I really like your dress." Then the tagline appears: "Expect a perfectly natural reaction."

"It wasn't intended for lesbians, but hopefully they liked it," said Mendelsohn, whose agency also has done work for BMW North America and regional hamburger chains Rally's Hamburgers Inc. and Carl's Jr. "I hope lesbians thought, 'Finally someone has used two women in an ad and poked no fun.'"

More common is a new print ad for Bison Brand Vodka, which also has a lesbian theme and is not intended to appeal to them.

It shows three women and a man sitting in the grass of a park at night, playing Spin the (empty vodka) Bottle. The women have long hair and are wearing more makeup than clothing. Two of the gals are staring passionately into each others' eyes, about to liplock, as the skinny guy watches and the other gal covers her naked breasts. The tagline is "A little grass, a little vodka. Nothing wrong with that."

Century-old Bison is imported from Poland and has a blade of buffalo grass in it, purported to have aphrodisiac qualities. The ad began running in October in a number of hipster magazines, including Nylon, Paper, Detour, Flaunt, Surface and Ocean Drive.

Nancy Goldstein, a former lecturer at the Harvard women's studies program, calls such an ad the equivalent of "straight male porn. These poses are supposed to suggest lesbian erotica but the women are always there for the male gaze."

Michael Glowacki, creative director at Eyecandy Advertising, calls his work for Bison "kind of a ballsy ad." Yet when asked what the implied sexuality of the subjects are, he says, "It is a mistake to read too much out of it. I don't want to imply that they got drunk to do it. I don't want to imply anything."

Ironically, Glowacki himself is gay and he tested the ad with lesbian and gay friends. He said their reaction was "they laughed. Ninety percent said they thought it was cool that we're running it in Flaunt" magazine.

Glowacki is also part owner in Brooklyn-based Adamba Imports, which brings Bison to the U.S., and helped start Eyecandy a year ago. He has worked at notable New York ad agencies Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG and Deutsch, which created the groundbreaking IKEA television campaign that included a gay couple, but says he was not open when he worked at them.

Beer marketers also have increasingly dealt with gay and lesbian themes. In the mid-1990s, they acknowledged criticism of their clichéd approach to winning drinkers through the Swedish Bikini Team and other ploys to focus on buxom gals. Philip Morris Company’s Miller Brewing Co., Anheuser-Busch Cos., Heineken USA and Pete's Brewing Co. began mining other areas of intrigue and found a winner in mostly gay male themes for TV ads.

Lesbians showed up in almost identical situations for TV spots from Molson Breweries and Brasseries Kronenbourg beers, which aired briefly in Canada and Europe respectively. In both, a man tries to buy a beer for a woman who disappears, then turns up with her girlfriend. The hapless guy is amused as the two women, again with lots of makeup and glazed eyes--look back at him from afar, like twin aliens.

In the U.S., lesbians have appeared in mainstream TV ads from Clothestime, Triarc's Mistic beverages and lesbian cruise line Olivia, as well as gay-targeted print ads from American Express Financial Services, Subaru of America, Bacardi-Martini's Disaronno amaretto and Tuaca liqueur.

Olivia aired once on the coming-out episode of "Ellen" in 1997, seizing an opportunity to reach a large lesbian market on TV. The ad showed a thin and glamorous couple enjoying themselves on the boat, swimming, sunning and having a meal.

"We wanted one to be lesbian but we had no idea how hard it was to find someone willing to be in a lesbian commercial," says Judith Dlugacz, Olivia president. "We had two days to do a search and did a call for models but didn't get a response. There was only one model who was out, Jenny Shimizu, but it didn't work out with her." (Shimizu, with short-cropped hair and tattoos, has modeled for Benneton and Calvin Klein.)

They finally found two models – one was even lesbian, but which one remains a secret.

"The most important thing from our perspective was to make it a beautiful ad. We wanted to try to make sure it would be aired," says Dlugacz.

Nonetheless, due to the pressure of carrying the coming-out of "Ellen," ABC declined to air the ad on the network and Olivia had to buy time on a handful of stations in individual cities. Still, Olivia became the first openly gay product advertised on TV.

Goldstein observes that realistic lesbian depictions are less about what they look like and more about "stance and attitude, with self-determination and autonomy."

A current gay media print ad for Disaronno Originale shows two women in party dresses warmly embracing on a matchbox with the tagline "Light A Fire."

Like IKEA, Mistic's 1996 TV ad was created by the Deutsch agency. It aired on MTV and showed a young woman speaking to the camera: "Mom, Dad, if you're watching, I wanted to let you know I've finally found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with. Mom and dad, this is Jenn." Jenn sticks her head into the camera and says "Hi." It finishes with the tagline, "Show Your Colors."

Mistic's two young women were not highly sexualized or glamorized, similar to a print ad from American Express Financial Services that has run in gay media for over a year. It shows a real couple of middle-aged women on the beach embracing as they contemplate their financial future together.

Mistic and American Express are among those getting closer to depicting gay women in a more natural way but they remain the exception.

"Showing gay people as the joke for entertainment value is both good and bad," says Mendelsohn. "Both are financial. Advertising agencies, for the most part, are afraid of creating controversy and losing their clients by bringing that 'solution' to a client. Most clients in America won't bring that to TV and risk losing business."

He continues, "Until Archie Bunker came along and made fun of blacks, Jews and gays on TV, it was a no-no too. There are always going to be people who won't like it no matter how you treat it. Will it ever be an everyday concept? Maybe not in my lifetime."

However, if Dlugacz has her way, her Olivia ad will make a comeback appearance in 2000. And if marketers continue to do research as American Express and Subaru have, marketers may increasingly learn that lesbians are a force all their own.\n

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