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How Eighties Advertising Made Everyone Gay

by Mark Simpson

(GT Magazine, November 2008)

Why, I wonder, are gays – or at least the busybody, button-holing, milk-monitor ones – so keen on ads being nice to them, and telling the world it’s OK to be homo? Especially when this strategy frequently leaves them with mayo on their faces?

Stonewall’s apoplexy over the pulling of the Heinz ‘gay kiss’ ad earlier this year is a messy case-in-point. Excuse me, but it wasn’t a gay kiss, it was a joke: Heinz’s sandwich spread is so good, it turns mum into an ugly New York deli short-order chef whom dad pecks on the cheek before leaving in the morning. They’re not a gay couple. The fact it wasn’t a very good joke doesn’t make the sulky gay boycott of Heinz for pulling the ad look any less humourless than the literalist Christians and ‘family-values’ freaks who complained about it in the first place.

Likewise, whatever Snickers were saying in that TV ad featuring Mr T barking, “Get some nuts!” while firing candy bars at a swishy speed-walker, the much swishier response of gay groups on both sides of the Atlantic who succeeded in getting it banned sent out the entirely unambiguous message that gays don’t have any.

More to the point, who besides Stonewall and pensioners, actually watches TV ads these days? Isn’t that what the fast-forward button was invented for? Gay people, and for that matter most straights now, are too busy uploading their ‘home movies’ onto their online profile to watch TV in real time.

‘Impressionable’ kids that the gay busybodies want to protect certainly aren’t watching: they don’t see the point of TV that doesn’t turn the world into a lake of fire at the touch of an Xbox controller.

I’ll bet ready money most people only heard about these ads after the gay milk monitors started huffing, “How very dare you!” – and driving even more traffic to YouTube. It was the only place I actually saw either ad.

Gay protests about ‘homophobic’ ads today sometimes seem to exist in a virtual world, defending virtual people from virtual slights where the only thing that’s real is pointlessness. I’m old enough to remember when people did watch ads. It was a time when they were, as everyone used to say repeatedly, “the best thing on telly,” when, instead of diving for the mute button, people would turn the sound up. And it was a time when ads were doing their damndest to turn everyone gay. It was called the 1980s.

In the 1980s, advertising was gay porn – and the only gay porn generally available. Which is why it was so powerful. Now, thanks to the net, porn is porn – or rather, porn is advertising: I want those pubes/ that body/ that cock/ that orifice/ that surgery/ that lampshade.

The legendary UK Levi’s male striptease ads of the mid-1980s (inspired by the success of the 1983 Calvin Klein underwear poster campaign featuring a giant Tom Hintnaus stripped down to his Y fronts in Times Square, lensed by Bruce Weber) saw humpy young men take off their clothes off in our living rooms. It introduced the glorious notion of the worked-out, attention-hungry, proudly passive male body to an equally astonished and enraptured British public. And brainwashed an entire generation of straight boys into joining the gym and then going to gay discos and starting boybands to show off the results.

It also succeeded in making even straight women “gay”. After all, in place of cooing about “twinkly eyes,” it encouraged women to look at the male body with the same critical, impossibly demanding, carnivorous eye that gay men had used for years. In fact, so much have all our expectations been inflated that Nick Kamen’s “fabulously hunky” body as it was described back then by the tabs, today probably wouldn’t get past the audition stage – he’d be told to go back to the gym and inject some horse steroids.

Pre-1980s there wasn’t much gay lust in ads or, for that matter, Britain. I remember as a kid spending most of the 1970s watching an Old Spice Aftershave ‘Mark of a Man’ commercial, which featured a surfer riding a vast, spuming wave in very long-shot, to the climactic strains of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The number of times I waited for that ad to come on as a kid, hoping, praying that this time the camera would move in closer.

In the 1980s, my prayers were answered and the lens moved in, big time. Since then, it’s never moved back. It has zoomed ever closer, until now we’re looking at the mitochondria on the walls of men’s small intestines.

Maybe I’m an incurable romantic/masochist, but I sometimes find myself missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity. Because it never quite delivers, it never disappoints.

You might think my take on how 1980s advertising queered up Britain and made it safe for metrosexuality fanciful, but there were lots of people who objected to the Levi’s commercials back then because they saw them as promoting sodomitic immorality. If those nay-gay-sayers had succeeded in having the ads pulled – in the way that gay groups succeed today with ads they deem to be immoral – who knows what kind of pec-less, ab-less world we might be living in?

In the post-advertising, post-gay porn world we’re living in, there’s an American website called Commercial Closet devoted to how ads treat homosexuals, which you can visit if you want to get worked up over ads you haven’t seen – most of them foreign. It has a gay grading system for each ad that, using a complicated very American formula, scores them from 0 to 100. Anything under 49 is deemed ‘Negative’, between 49-69 is ‘Caution’; 69-89 ‘Equal’; and 89-100 ‘Elton John’ (OK, I made that last bit up).

One of the more interesting contributions is a series of ads for the trainers ASICS, which ran in France this year. In them, two male French comedians, Omar & Fred, one black, one white, ‘go gay’, making passes at one another. Sans ASICS, they’re rebuffed indignantly by the other party. Avec, they go gaga for them. There’s nothing especially offensive about the ads. They resort to fewer stereotypes than gay-adored Little Britain and, more importantly, are (mildly) funny, and seem to be entirely accurate in what they’re saying about the effect that consumerism in general – and advertising in particular – have had on men.

How does it score according to Commercial Closet’s gay-friendly grading system? ‘40: Negative’.

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8 thoughts on “How Eighties Advertising Made Everyone Gay”

  1. Thanks!

    I’m looking forward to your review more than to the movie itself, which I’m afraid looks primed to take itself awfully seriously–the kiss of death to humor, which was always the saving grace of Star Trek.

    I enjoyed them, but similarly the whisky-ad parodies tipped too far into earnestness to be as funny as they could have been. If they had truly ridiculed CC, the marketers would not be snorting with self-satisfaction as I agree they almost certainly are.

  2. Fresca!

    Loved your post on ST XI. The trailer does make ST look a little like extreme sports in space, and the Enterprise’s bridge like an LA nightclub, but I’ll certainly do a full ‘compare and contrast’ when the movie comes out.

    Thanks for the tip off about the feminist parodies of the Canadian Club ‘Mad Men’ Whisky ads. I especially liked ‘YOUR MOM WAS YOUR DAD’. But I can’t help wondering whether all this attention doesn’t just make CC and the ad agency responsible slap themselves on the back in frat-boy fashion.

  3. Hi, Mark,

    Yesterday I saw a bootleg trailer for the upcoming Star Trek XI, (which is starting all over again with a new, young Kirk & Spock, as you surely know), and thought how very modern and liberated it is compared to the ridiculously repressed sexuality of 1960s Trek, and how that strikes me as… much less fun.

    I just quoted you about “missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity” in my post about the new Capt. Kirk’s [Chris Pine’s] spraddle:

    I’m hoping you’ll do a full compare and contrast when the movie comes out in May, it the movie warrants.

    Also, not your usual topic, but did you see the feminist parodies of the Canadian Club Whisky ads, they of the “Your Dad Was Not a Metrosexual” fame? Here:
    Michelle Schwartz, a Canadian herself, even provided a template on her blog so people could make their own. (You have to scroll down a ways to see the take-offs).
    Thanks, as always,

  4. Come on, Graham, don’t mince words. Tell us what you really think about LB….

    In truth, I feel the same way about Matt Lucas in a g-string, and was never a fan of LB, but self-loathing should not be underestimated. I certainly wouldn’t waste my loathing on anyone else.

  5. And. Little Britain USA just finished over here. Caught a couple of episodes. Horseshit. That depressingly-self-loathing and self-destructive ‘ironic’ gay humor stuff is dead as this country’s intellect. Nothing like recycling jokes and characters with the odd bit of ‘new’ (ie boring scatological and pathological) material to pack them in in the cheap seats. Tawdry trash. I just hope they’re finished with, cos I NEVER want to see Matt Lucas in a g-string again. EVER. I don’t think my eyesight will ever recover. My corneas are still bleeding. It’s my own damned fault.

    Get Bruce LaBruce to make an ad. that might be a laugh.


  6. ” . . .porn is advertising: I want those pubes/ that body/ that cock/ that orifice/ that surgery/ that lampshade.”

    There’s something about this thought that recalls the cryptic exchange in ‘Portrait of a Lady’ where Mme. Merle basically says to Osmond that she is the sum of her possessions, that they matter more to her than anything, including, as we soon discover, the love child they share, ‘Pansy’ (a term which in its modern usage I wouldn’t hesitate to apply to that antique-obsessed wanker, Gilbert Osmond, a ‘gay’ heterosexual sine qua non). James draws stark attention to the nasty quid pro quo between generative function and materialism that I think is endemic to bourgeois society. ‘Sex is the shopping of the poor’ is what Shaw ought to have said.

    Therefore the observation that advertising is essentially ‘gay’, in the most effete sense of that term, should come as no surprise, those hard-drinking retrosexual menschen of ‘Mad Men’ notwithstanding. The frank homoeroticism of Bruce Webber’s Calvin Klein ads of the late eighties was simply ‘letting the other foot drop’ — he should have been blinded like Tiresias for ‘giving away the secret’! And perhaps these ads were the avenue by which ‘gay’ has become synonymous with insipid (lame, crappy) among the generation exposed to them since birth. “Dude, that is like so GAY!” is far more likely to be directed at Earth Day than an act of sodomy.

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