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Powerful Evangelicals Are Fighting Against Ads Featuring Gays

Placing gay couples in ads has become a common way for companies to "freshen" their message and show consumers they are inclusive, marketing executives say.
June 11, 2015, 1:33pm
Eric Risberg/AP Photo

While the Pew Research Center announced today that a record 72 percent of Americans think legal same sex marriage in the country is "inevitable," a powerful corner of the evangelical world launched a new anti-gay campaign against companies who feature gay couples in their ads.

Franklin Graham, the son of televangelist Billy Graham and now-CEO of his father's namesake evangelical association, blasted Wells Fargo in a Facebook post last week for an ad the company created featuring a lesbian couple, and said he would move his money out of the bank and, while he was at it, stop shopping at Tiffany's jewelry.

"Have you ever asked yourself: How can we fight the tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats by big business, the media, and the gay & lesbian community?" Graham wrote in a Facebook post on June 5. "At the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, we are moving our accounts from Wells Fargo to another bank."

The association will move about $100 million to BB&T bank, according to CNN Money, despite that bank acting as a sponsor for Miami Beach Gay Pride.

The Billy Graham Evangelist Association said in a statement to VICE News that the decision to move banking business away from Wells Fargo "is based on the bank using corporate advertising to promote lifestyles that are counter to what God's Word teaches."

"This is not about a business being gay friendly, it's about whether the business is using stockholder's money to promote a lifestyle that is not biblical," the statement said.

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Graham asked others if they would join in, becoming the latest Christian group to urge a boycott of companies that lean too liberal.

"This is one way we as Christians can speak out—we have the power of choice. Let's just stop doing business with those who promote sin and stand against Almighty God's laws and His standards. Maybe if enough of us do this, it will get their attention. Share this if you agree.

Advertising industry executives are skeptical whether Graham's ploy will actually cause any companies to think twice about including LGBT individuals in advertisements, a practice that has become increasingly common in recent years, they said.

"It makes so little difference now," Bob Witeck, an advertising consultant who has studied the LGBT marketing space for 25 years, told VICE News.

"Companies have reached the conclusion that it makes them be perceived as contemporary and relevant," he said. "It's not just the gay market, it's the millennial market, millenials who don't want to see whole segments of their family and friends erased. Millenials want to be using brands that are forward thinking, not interested in old school points of views, and are interested in seeing a reflection of the reality in their lives."

Matt Tumminello, president of the LGBT marketing firm Target-10, which has been working on LGBT-inclusive advertising for more than a decade, said that for the last five or six years campaigns against LGBT advertising have proven to be really ineffective, and inclusion of LGBT people in ads has increased "exponentially."

"It was a way to get attention, Tumminello told VICE News. "Today I think they're just seen as silly, and our clients don't really pay them any attention."

Tumminello pointed to the campaign by One Million Moms, part of the American Family Association, to boycott JC Penney after it chose Ellen DeGeneres as its spokeswoman.

"Groups that try to create backlash, like One Million Moms with JC Penney, fail miserably and become almost laughable," he said. "People who might be anti-LGBT rights find it ineffective."

The American Family Association released a statement Tuesday saying it was joining Franklin Graham in "calling on Christians to close their Wells Fargo bank accounts in support of God's laws and His standards."

Related: Supreme Court Shoots Down Attempted Block on Gay Marriage in Alabama

Advertising industry workers and watchers said that in recent years, many companies have felt it's okay to come out as gay-friendly, but that wasn't the case until very recently. Witeck said that since the first popular gay advertisement was put out by IKEA in 1994, LGBT visibility in advertising had only seen moderate increases until about five years ago. A campaign by JC Penney in 2012 led to a boycott that hurt sales. As recently as two years ago, ads for Honey Maid Grahams and Amazon's Kindle caused "quite a splash" when they featured LGBT people.

"It's taken a long time for it to be normalized in the sense of a non-event," Witeck said.

Five or six years ago, many brands began advertising to LGBT consumers in targeted ways — say, in gay publications — but in the past two years brands have included LGBT people in advertisements targeted at the general public, Tumminello said.

"I think marriage equality has a lot to do with this," Tumminello said, pointing to the Supreme Court's decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 as meaningful turning points in the nation's acceptance of gay rights and advertisers inclusion of LGBT people.

"Those were very high profile cases that I think a majority of Americans saw as unfair, and Americans in general don't like things that are unfair," Tumminello said. "So they were of a mindset that, yeah, we want a world where all people are equal."

Robert Klara, a senior editor at Ad Week, said the profusion of ads featuring LGBT individuals is "pretty remarkable."

"I think it's extremely significant, and represents one of the last great unrealized opportunities for a lot of brands who have had their eye on this population but for one reason or another held off marketing to them," he said.

Witeck pointed out that a 2013 Cheerios commercial featuring a mixed-race family sparked more backlash than a commercial for Amazon's Kindle e-reader with a gay couple in it.

In addition to America's growing acceptance of gay rights, Witeck and Klara pointed to changing values, particularly among the millennial generation — a demographic many brands seek to court — as a reason for the change in advertising approaches.

"A lot of companies are trying to freshen their look. What is the best marker for saying you're contemporary? For a lot of companies it's saying your gay friendly," Witeck said. "There's a lot of deep emotional empathy among young people that gay people are worthy of love and inclusion."

Klara said he thinks millenials are the most politically and socially aware generation since the 1960s arguably.

"I think they care about the stances brands take on these issues," he said. "And if they don't happen to be LGBT, they know someone who is."

Tumminello said many companies come to him wanting to convey their core values about inclusion and equality to the public.

"By showing LGBT representation, that conveys a strong message about a company's core values," Tumminello said, "that we represent a world today that is inclusive and diverse."

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Tumminello and Witeck both pointed out that companies — and marketing — have become highly sophisticated, and target small segments of the population in savvy ways.

Klara said it's hard to tell whether companies are merely using gays in ads because it seems cool or trendy or if there's actually a growing commitment to marketing to a more diverse potential pool of customers than in previous years.

"I'm not so cynical to think that everything corporate America does is solely for bottom line," Klara said. "I think a couple of years ago I'd have been more likely to say it's a totally bottom line-driven decision but now I feel like it's really achieving greater parity because the community itself has become more ingrained in everyone's personal experience."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Watch the VICE News documentary, "Young and Gay in Putin's Russia." 

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