For the second year in a row, some advertisers made plays for violence toward the gay community and stereotypes during the Super Bowl—now paying a record $2.7 million per 30 seconds to do so.
In a hotly discussed ad for Bridgestone Americas Holding tires by Richards Group, Dallas, a man swerves on a dark road to avoid hitting a deer and rocker Alice Cooper in ghoul makeup. However, when he sees flamboyant aerobics instructor Richard Simmons doing exercise in a trademark rhinestone-adorned tank top, the driver instead hits the gas and nearly misses 59-year-old Simmons as he shouts, 'And squeeze those buns!'
It is the first time that Nashville, Tenn.-based Bridgestone has run an ad during the Super Bowl—with a record 97.5 million viewers—and just a year after the Mars Super Bowl campaign for Snickers, where men violently beat each other due to an 'accidental kiss' when sharing a candy bar. The 2007 Snickers campaign web site included video of Super Bowl players universally grossed out by the supposed kiss, and was the target of a campaign by major gay community organizations. Mars pulled its campaign immediately.
Bridgestone's ad was declared homophobic by veteran Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield, and reviewed negatively on AfterElton.com, but Bridgestone's openly gay Advertising and Internet manager, Michael Fluck, says, 'The humor in this ad has nothing to do with sexuality. I don't know if he's ever come out publicly or not, and he clearly knew the content of the spot.' Fluck says Simmons was picked because 'he's polarizing and over-the-top and that may be because of his sexuality. And for that matter, why Alice Cooper? We chose iconic people. Richard Simmons made the spot fabulous.'
To those who have trouble with the commercial, the ad may seem a departure for Bridgestone, which has advertised consistently in gay media with customized ads since 2001 under Fluck's leadership, and carries an 80 score from the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index. But Fluck maintains most people liked the spot, 'We've had tremendous feedback from our customers.' ( It ranked No. 16 on USA Today's Ad Meter. )
Simmons once before participated in a commercial inviting violence on him—in 2001, for a mattress maker that shared his name, Simmons Mattresses. The ad demonstrated how a bowling ball wouldn't disturb someone else on the bed, then demonstrated the ball crushing Simmons himself.
Many may say that Simmons is a self-deprecating, over-the-top clown and that he knowingly participated in the 'fun.' Yet, it is difficult to avoid concluding that Simmons can represent any feminine or flamboyant man, and the rejection and violence is not reserved for him alone. Without the punchline attempt to run him over, the spot could have been an inclusive embrace of Simmons and whomever he may represent—gay, feminine or clownish men.
In another ad, a bisexual psychopathic character ( named T-Bag ) from Fox Broadcasting Co.'s 'Prison Break' and others escaping prison open a manhole cover to find themselves in the middle of the Super Bowl game field. One of the characters looks at a player's rear and says 'Hey Pretty'—he's then immediately sacked harshly.
Advertising has a long history of gay predator prison jokes. Recently, the Universal Studios movie Let's Go to Prison and its trailer were completely built around them. In 2002, Cadbury Schweppes' 7Up spokes-comedian Godfrey was shown in a vulnerable position and 7Up had to pull the spot after Stop Prisoner Rape petitioned that the ad was in poor taste. More references came from IKEA, Panasonic and Virgin Mobile.
Justin Timberlake returns to the Super Bowl for the first time since he co-starred in the Janet Jackson 2004 halftime-performance 'wardrobe malfunction'—this time for Pepsi ( from BBDO ) , where he is forcefully pulled by unseen forces ( actually, a girl drinking through a straw ) across the landscape. He passes a window of what seems like a woman brushing her long blonde hair, but instead is a scruffy young man in a wig, perhaps imagining himself as Justin's former girlfriend Britney Spears, with large pictures of Justin covering the wall. A weird smile crosses his face ( played by Andy Samberg, co-creator of the popular 'Dick in a Box' sketch from 'Saturday Night Live' ) . Some may find the cross-dressing reference inclusive, while it is arguable that this is just a simple laugh at transgender people.
By contrast, Diet Pepsi had a strikingly inclusive Super Bowl commercial in 2005, where 'Queer Eye' guy Carson Kressley gapes at a sexy man.
Other spots from Super Bowl XLII that carried LGBT suggestions were more sedate. A trailer from Sony Pictures for a new movie from comedian Adam Sandler, 'You Don't Mess With the Zohan,' makes a double-entendre reference to bisexuals. When Sandler's character, a comical Israeli commando, performs a superhuman task, a male bystander asks, 'What are you, bionic?' Zohan replies, 'No I only like the girls. Thanks anyways.'
Meanwhile, Dell featured a young man causing a sensation as he walks through a non-American city. As a result, his rear end gets positive attention from a male police officer and an older man, who both slap his butt. In the end, it's not for his looks, it's for his red Dell laptop. The ad carries no negative connotations to the same-sex butt-slapping—usually more acceptable in American football than by random men on the street.
In the end, ad meter ratings don't necessarily translate to sales or long-term brand relationships. But polarizing ads can achieve the opposite. Advertisers will do better in the long run by taking the high road and avoiding gay punchlines.
And we ask Richard Simmons, why not let your next ad make you lovable instead of hatable? 'You are so worth it!'
Wilke is executive director of the Commercial Closet Association and has written for Advertising Age, Adweek and The New York Times. Over 3,000 LGBT-themed ads going back to 1917 can be found at www.commercialcloset.org .