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‘Problematic’ or a ‘positive step forward?': Sexualized Pride ads stir debate on LGBTQ marketing campaigns

Postmates, Burger King, Dr Pepper and others have released Pride ads with “top” and “bottom” gay sex jokes.
Pride ads released by Postmates.
Pride ads released by Postmates.Postmates

Recently, amid a flurry of rainbow-accented commercials featuring same-sex couples embracing one another, food delivery service Postmates debuted its ad campaign for Pride Month, leaning into the aspect of gay sex. 

The company, which is owned by the ride-hailing service Uber, released a “bottom-friendly” food menu for consumers in New York City and Los Angeles. A commercial for the menu depicted a harness-clad eggplant as a “top” and a peach wearing jockstrap underwear as a “bottom.” Throughout the narrated video, the pair approach various food items, some of which are easily digestible for people who are preparing for anal sex, while others are not.

“If you’re a top, it seems like you can eat whatever you want,” said the ad’s narrator, social media influencer Rob Anderson. “But if you’re a bottom, you’re expected to starve? Not this Pride.”

Postmates is not alone in producing sexualized imagery to market to LGBTQ consumers during Pride Month. Burger King, Dr Pepper and even toilet paper brand Cottonelle have run ads that make oblique references to anal sex. But LGBTQ marketers and experts in LGBTQ communications are divided on whether the sexualized ads are an inadvertent tool to discriminate against queer sex and sexuality or a sign of progress.

Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, a firm specializing in LGBTQ marketing, called the trend “unusual” and “problematic.”

“Sexualizing any marketing campaign in this way is a risk,” he said. “But doing so to target LGBTQ consumers has greater risk because it overly sexualizes same-sex attraction in ways that we’ve been trying to normalize in many ways.”

In a statement, Postmates defended its Pride commercial, arguing that instead, the ad is “destigmatizing” gay sex. 

“The video comically demonstrates the diversity of the LGBTQIA+ community while sharing some information that is often omitted from traditional sexual education,” the company said in an email. “Sex education, and specifically queer sex education, shouldn’t be stigmatized.”

The company also told NBC News that it does not have a “sex-friendly” menu targeting straight people, but that it might create one in the future.

Postmates wasn’t the only company to draw criticism for its references to gay sex this year. Fast-food giant Burger King debuted a “Pride Whopper” in its Austrian stores with “two equal buns,” giving consumers the option to buy burgers with either two top buns or two bottom buns. 

The ad went viral on gay Twitter, with some accusing the company of “pandering” to the LGBTQ community. The agency behind it, Jung von Matt Donau, issued an apology last week, acknowledging ​​that it didn’t consult with LGBTQ people “well enough” before releasing the ad.

“Sexuality is a gift for everyone,” Witeck added, “but it’s not confined to one demographic and it can be used to exploit and demean a community as a stereotype.”

Matt Wagner, who is the vice president of client relations at Target 10, an LGBTQ marketing firm, agreed, adding that gay men are not the only people who have anal sex.

“It’s just yet another kind of odd angle to me that just sort of puts us in this weird box in the corner that is just like what we’ve been trying to get out of it for so long,” Wagner, who is gay, said. 

This year’s ads build on an ongoing trend. In 2018, Dr Pepper released a Pride ad with three images of its iconic can, playing on the sexual preferences of gay and bisexual men: one image showing the top of the can, labeled “Top,” another of the bottom of the can, labeled “Bottom,” and another of the can face-on, labeled “Verse.” 

The following year, Cottonelle released an ad for its flushable wipes with an image of a clean “eggplant” emoji — which many view as a symbol for a penis — saying: “Happy Pride. Our Flushable Wipes will give you that just-showered feeling so you can keep the love going.” 

Wagner argued that the ads might be “creating an opportunity” to exacerbate “an already sort of inflammatory, specious narrative about” LGBTQ issues.

In recent months, conservative lawmakers, television pundits and other public figures have accused opponents of a newly enacted Florida education law, which critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, of trying to “groom” or “indoctrinate” children. The word “grooming” has long been used to mischaracterize LGBTQ people, particularly gay men and transgender women, as child sex abusers.

“We’re being called ‘groomers’ and ‘pedophiles’ and you’re going to create a campaign about topping and bottoming?” Wagner asked. “Read the room.”

Katherine Sender, a professor of communications and the feminist, gender and sexuality studies program at Cornell University, called the sexualized ads bizarre but said they also demonstrate a positive step forward. She added that the new ads show that companies are willing to showcase “much more complex representations” of LGBTQ people, compared with the ads in the '90s and the early 2000s, when many companies first started advertising to LGBTQ consumers.

“If you saw gay people at all, they never had a relationship, they never had sex,” she said, referring to the ads of decades past. “Or they had to be kind of saints — the valedictorian, the captain of the football team — in order to have a space on television at all.”

In 1994, furniture giant Ikea released the first mainstream television ad in the United States  to feature a gay couple. The commercial showcased the two men picking out a dining room table, resembling a married couple and emphasizing monogamy. 

“This table included a leaf,” the couple exclaims. “A leaf means staying together, commitment.”

Larry Gross, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who helped found the field of LGBTQ studies, acknowledged that the recent ads are “farther out” than any Pride campaigns he’s seen before. But, like Sender, he reasoned that they demonstrate how the marketing industry is “reading the current moment.”

“What they’re signaling there is ‘We’re hip like you,’ which is of course what a great deal of advertising is always saying,” he said. “Clearly they think they can get away with and benefit from something that would have been seen as way too risky in the past.”

As for the LGBTQ people who might be offended by the ads’ explicit references, Gross says: “Get over it.”

“It’s a little pearl-clutching to suddenly notice that public gay culture is sexualized,” he continued. “It’s not all ‘Thank you for your service, gays in the military.’”

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