The circular relationship between advertising and culture is a curious one. Advertising responds to culture, tapping into what’s popular in order to create a positive response to its products, but it also shapes culture, creating social pressure to buy its products. Either way, of course, it comes back to selling products, because that’s what corporations do. They are not political; they do not have opinions about social issues (or anything). This is not to say that they are morally neutral, merely pragmatic. They exist to make money.
Sometimes the goal of making money crosses paths with social and political goals. This happens when the issue has become mainstream enough amongst the target demographic that the best way to court them is to act on the issue. People want reusable bags or fair-trade coffee? Companies will sell them. People don’t? Companies won’t. It’s (usually) as simple as that. Consider the perennially amusing-obnoxious War on Christmas. A business has only one dog in this fight: What will make more people shop at their store? If it’s “Merry Christmas,” they’ll say “Merry Christmas.” If it’s “Happy Holidays,” they’ll say that. Advertisers are not big risk-takers. They tend to prefer tried-and-true formulas to experimentation (movie trailers, anyone?) and are often willing to sacrifice a potential demographic rather than tweak a working formula (e.g., advertising yogurt only to women). Thus, advertising can serve as a social barometer: If it’s embraced in advertisements, it’s mainstream.
That’s why the ads reproduced here represent the culmination of a major social change. The appearance of not just one, but several recent advertisements featuring same-sex couples demonstrates that we’ve moved from “not that there’s anything wrong with that” to actually believing that there’s nothing wrong with that. These companies are confident that our response to these images will not be outrage or revulsion, but “what a cute couple” or “what a sweet family,” just as if traditional opposite-sex couples had been depicted.
The J.C. Penney ads are the most significant. Gap and Urban Outfitters both have young, ostensibly-hip clienteles, a demographic among which gay rights enjoys strong support, but J.C. Penney’s clientele is supposed to be everyone. The presence of children also emboldens the statement, affirming the right of gay couples not only to be seen together, but to settle down and raise families.
These advertisements show that, however long this particular culture war may take to actually resolve, it’s effectively over: Gay rights are accepted by the mainstream and condemnation of the “homosexual lifestyle” is relegated to a dwindling, ever-more-irrelevant fringe. Anyway, these three companies think so, and they’ve staked money on it.
(Updated to add JC Penney’s Father’s Day ad.)