Though a journalist by trade, I developed an abiding interest in persuasive communication during graduate school. I have formally studied the intersection of media messages, group identity and social justice, focusing most of my attention on advertising. I routinely teach a course in mass media criticism, and 1/3 of class time involves the close reading of commercial advertising and cause / idea promotions. I am constantly searching for material that reflects contemporary popular culture. I recently discovered sexuality and gender roles front and center in ad campaigns from around the globe and not just as subjects of promotion. We are finding them as framing devices to convey other messages. For example:
Volt, Sweden’s print campaign sponsored by the Swedish Armed Forces for the 2018 EuroPride festival in Stockholm, features separate male and female models dressed in battle fatigues and gear, sans helmets, applying rainbow-colored camouflage paint to their faces. They are standing in front of a wooden fence or scaling wall, suggesting they are preparing for training. The copy in English reads: “We don’t always march straight. But no matter where or when we march, we always stand up for your right to live the way you want with whoever you want. Read more about how we work to protect freedom and the right to choose the way we live at forsvarsmakten.se”
The ad’s messaging works on several levels. Most obviously it is reminding viewers that male and female members of the LGBTQ community (those not marching “straight) serve in combat roles in the military. The copy also places personal liberty at the center of Sweden’s national identity and as part of the military’s defense mission. On another level, the campaign also serves as a recruitment tool targeting the LGBTQ community, particularly those skeptical of the army’s support. That the soldiers are shown applying the paint rather than posed with the paint already applied suggests individual agency, openness and decisiveness. This small motion challenges the notion of hiding among the ranks. Additionally, both models are facing the camera, eyes locked on the viewer, their bodies open, all of which suggests boldness and courage. These are familiar themes at Pride Festivals around the world.
The Havas agency’s E45 skin cream 30-second spot features British Olympic champion turned professional boxer Nicola Adams sporting her trademark partially shaved head, what might be described as gender-nonconforming outfits and athletic apparel. She is shown engaging in her training regimen in various international locales as her voice-over says: “In my life, I never like to sit still. All the traveling, the training, the hard work, everything I do, it takes a toll on my skin. Some days it needs a little bit more. New E45 rich. It’s everything my skin needs. Just straight-up skin care.”
Adams, who publicly identifies as bisexual, is an LGBTQ icon in Great Britain. As a celebrated face and national treasure, Adams lends substantial gravitas to the endorsement of a product that is not targeted at the LGBTQ community, people of color nor women. Casting Adams as spokesperson acknowledges, yes, her renown but also her substantial appeal across a spectrum of potential consumers. Additionally, Adams delivers the message that hard work and self-care are companions, challenging the perception among some that female athletes are indifferent to their appearance outside of the arena or the ring.
MullenLowe’s series of spots for Aruba Tourism Authority turns around the male-centric marriage proposal trope – and acknowledges that it’s doing so -- to cut through viewers’ gender-role expectations in service of a unique promotion. In each 60-second ad, a male-female couple in their early to mid-30s is show vacationing together – strolling along a beach, dining al fresco, sunning on a sailboat. The woman tells her companion she has enjoyed their time and wants to take their relationship to the next level. She presents a boxed ring (a solid band) and presents it to her companion, whose face then, in slow motion, bursts into a broad smile and tears. They embrace and the moment dissolves into a love weepy song and the pitch. “Let’s keep the cliché of proposing in front of the sea. Let’s end the cliché of men doing it. Win a trip to Aruba to propose to your boyfriend. Arubahesaidyes.com”
While being played for laughs, and targeting women viewers, the ad, commendably, asks audience members to consider the social convention at the heart of the commercial’s narrative: Why does the man have to be the one to propose? But, not so commendably, in one instance the campaign overplays the man’s reaction to the point of grotesquerie (see above), leaving viewers to wonder if this is how the ad creator views a woman’s response – as ridiculous. In each of the spots, the female character includes in her build-up to the presentation of the ring a status report of a relationship that might appear static– we’ve lived together for five and half years,we’ve been together for seven and half,you can’t live with your parents anymore. Again, if the ad messenger is turning around familiar scenarios, then the messenger is suggesting that marriages liberate adult women from their parents. While it is likely that this accurately represents the reality for at least some women in the targeted audience, the commercials’ narratives would indicate the ideal customers for this promotion have status and means and are not lodging with Mom and Dad.
These campaigns take refreshing views of sexuality and gender roles and put them to use in selling products and / or ideas while challenging viewers’ conventional notions and expectations. Each strikes me as affirming (perhaps even celebrating) the richness of human diversity.
Born in Washington, D.C., and reared mostly in South Carolina, I was a working journalists for 10 years before joining the faculty at the University of South Carolina, my alma mater. I'm a student of media messages, especially advertising and film.