More on commercials as windows to the zeitgeist

I have written before about how commercials on TV are a pretty good measure of the zeitgeist. While niche companies may seek notoriety by airing an ad that skirts the boundaries of social acceptability in order to create controversy, major companies do not want to alienate large segments of their market and thus their ads give an idea of what is acceptable in mainstream society.

Via David Pescovitz, I came across what he says is the first mainstream commercial featuring a gay couple that was aired by IKEA in major East coast markets back in 1994.

This was a daring move by IKEA for the US market, though it may have not been so for their domestic Swedish one. The reaction then was mixed, as can be seen from this Los Angeles Times article from back then.

Last week, furniture retailer Ikea began airing an ad in several East Coast markets that shows two clearly identifiable gay men shopping for a dining room table at an Ikea store. It is the first time gays have been openly portrayed in a mainstream TV spot. Ikea has since been swamped with hundreds of phone calls and letters–some applauding the company, but many others demanding that the ad be axed.

The Ikea ad depicts “an aspect of gay life that people never see: our daily lives,” said Ellen Carton, executive director of the New York chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Instead of showing gays and lesbians marching at gay rights rallies or suffering from AIDS, the Ikea ad “humanizes us,” she said. “The importance of that cannot be overstated.”

But a storm of protest is rising on the right. “Openly promoting homosexuality will upset America’s mainstream and cost the company business,” said Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative, Washington-based think tank.

Interestingly, there was also some backlash from some members of the gay community who suspected some ulterior motive.

“It smacks of tokenism,” said Jeff Yarbrough, editor-in-chief of the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine. “If the intent of the ad has been to garner media attention, well, it’s done a brilliant job of that. But I wonder, what are their real motives? What is Ikea’s corporate policy on gays?”

As an indicator of how attitudes have changed, fast forward 25 years and such an ad would not be worth mentioning. In fact, I rarely watch commercial TV but when I watched a half-hour show last week I saw two ads back to back. One was for a wedding planning site where in a montage of their customer base they showed a photo of two men, and the other was an amusing ad that showed two men getting increasingly alarmed as the babysitter they had hired for the evening for their child seemed to be utterly irresponsible.

Similarly, now one sees ads for everyday products all the time that feature mixed race couples. Clearly such ads don’t bother many people anymore.

There is nothing about the products themselves that requires such representation. They are just recognition of the fact that we now have a diversity of relationships in our society.


  1. says

    It wasn’t that long ago when a lot of white people lost their shit over a Cheerios commercial that featured a mixed family (almost six years now according to Google). It’s really great that companies haven’t caved to bigotry and we’re seeing more same-sex and mixed race couples in commercials.

    If capitalism doesn’t care about your bigotry, you’ve lost.

  2. Sam N says

    They’ve lost the cities, and so most of the wealth and production. So of course ads don’t care. But thanks to strong rural representation, bigots still have a whole lot of control over government (and even in rural areas, there are plenty of progressives, they just aren’t a majority). So, they haven’t lost, yet.

    I’m always amused by their fantasies of a civil war, as if they aren’t outnumbered 6 to 3.

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