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At Ease, Men: A Brief History of Gay Advertising

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If you asked the average person when advertisers started targeting the queer community in earnest, they’d probably place it no earlier than the 1990s… but probably sometime in the early 2000s. While that answer feels right, it’s not — the pink dollar has been sought much, much earlier than that — try World War I — and they’re much more frank than you’d expect.

A World War I Navy recruitment ad

A World War I Navy recruitment ad

The ad pictured above is the work of J.C. Leyendecker. Leyendecker, a gay man and frequent cover artist of The Saturday Evening Post, was responsible for many of the iconic advertisements from the beginning of the 20th Century — and much of his work featured nearly-nude, muscular, attractive men in homoerotic situations. The Navy ad features a number of phallic symbols — and as for the men themselves, they look like they could be equally advertising the military or a gay dance club. Subtle, Leyendecker was not.

james r. bingham, advertising, gay, lgbtq

A Cannon Towels ad from 1944, painted by James R. Bingham

Wartime is a good time for homoeroticism. While the painter of this ad, James R. Bingham, wasn’t gay (he died of a stroke — and perhaps a broken heart — very soon after his wife’s death), his “True Towel Tales” series for Cannon Towels depicting true stories from military men about bathing made World War II look like a gay old time.

A post-war advertisement for Wilson Wear

A post-war advertisement for Wilson Wear

Once we got into post-war America, the homoerotic ads didn’t let up. Wilson Wear ran a particularly interesting campaign — the ad pictured (sadly, we couldn’t find the artist) is perhaps the least gay ad from this campaign. After all, even though everyone’s staring at the man in his new trunks (and the cowboy is taking a picture!), there’s at least a few women in this ad. A number of their other ads featured men living together while parading around in pajamas and underwear.

Sadly, by the 1980s and the rise of gay-centric publications, gay-coded ads in the mainstream became more and more rare. Subaru’s LGBTQ campaign in the mid-1990s and 2000s dabbled in “gay coding” that could be seen and understood by queer consumers but completely missed by straight ones was one result. The flip side to that was the rise of “gay vague” — where the only hint that these fellows might be a couple is that the spot debuted during the “coming out” episode of Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous sitcom:

Thankfully, the tide is starting to change back to explicitly including LGBTQ people in advertising. For example, Honey Maid’s “This Is Wholesome” campaign featuring a gay couple adopting a little girl:

Honey Maid, thankfully, stood their ground when the religious backlash hit:

And the new trailer for Pixar’s Finding Dory — starring Ellen! — features a lesbian couple in a brief shot:

After the dark ages of being pandered to, it looks like advertisers are finally realizing the pink dollar is just as green as everyone else’s money.