‘Tis the season for “heartwarming” holiday ads about love and family, and a few of this this year’s many sentiment-soaked Q4 advertisements happen to be a teeny tiny bit queer. In early December, wedding registry website Zola aired a series of ads, a few of which feature a lesbian couple lamenting the fact that they didn’t use Zola to plan their wedding… on the altar. Meanwhile, H&M released an ad that features, extremely briefly, two men kissing in a stairwell. And Pantene released a commercial featuring the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles and an accompanying series highlighting the difficulties that members of the LGBTQ community face when returning home for the holidays.
All three commercials are, frankly, pretty boring, because they’re commercials. The H&M ad plays on the “your-life-but-cooler tropes” that fashion companies deploy on a regular basis, the Pantene commercial is tonally similar to a classic “Love your body”-core Dove ad (and to Verizon’s “Love Calls Back” ad from June), and the Zola commercial belongs to the same heightened, jokey reality that “Jake from State Farm” does. Despite the fact that they’re all comically innocuous, the H&M and Zola clips still incited social media backlash, and Pantene turned off comments on YouTube anyway.
H&M turned off comments for its ad spot on YouTube, and has been deleting comments on Instagram posts relating to the, uh, 90-second commercial. This was probably the right move, given that this weekend, the notoriously anti-gay group One Million Moms actually got the Hallmark Channel to pull the Zola ad, temporarily and disastrously, before the network reversed its decision on Sunday following backlash to the removal.
It would be a serious stretch to equate any of these fleeting commercial appearances with actual media representation, and even if it were, media representation isn’t the same as actual progress in terms of civil rights. There is good reason to take a cynical view of ads like these; we are, after all, being sold something even when a brand is dangling the carrot of visibility in front of a marginalized group of people, and the brands generally benefit from getting to posture as woke. It’s a sad state of affairs, in 2019, to be fighting over the “controversy” of a “brave, progressive” representation of… two white, femme, conventionally attractive women kissing in an advertisement where, no matter how you slice it, a brand is trying to score points with a customer base. Given the level of backlash a commercial with even a whiff of gay implications (or other threat to traditional masculinity) can still receive, these commercials and the response are less of a marker of progress, and more of a measuring stick for how far we still have to go.
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