Advertising and Identity: Media representations move toward inclusivity

Adam Wheeler sat looking at a JC Penny commercial depicting a same-sex couple and their child. While he was unable to identify anything out of the ordinary in the previous commercial, which showed an interracial couple and their child, he was immediately able to recognize JC Penny’s representation of a same-sex couple.

According to Wheeler, non-acceptance of interracial couples is predominantly a thing of the past, but non-acceptance of families with same-sex partners is a current issue.

“With the gay family, there is still a lot more controversy surrounding that subject still,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler, a senior finance and marketing major and member of the American Advertising Federation (AAF), was working with The Women’s Center at Boise State to bring awareness about advertising and its impact on personal identity.

One topic discussed by sponsors and participants was the recent emergence and representation of non-heteronormative families in the media.

With same-sex marriage now recognized as a legally binding union in 16 states nation wide, mainstream media is also beginning to recognize and represent non-traditional families.

Eileen McNulty, gender equity peer educator for the Women’s Center and keynote speaker of the advertising event, pointed to the abundance of heteronormative families represented in  advertising.

“Advertisements such as these also represent an idea of heteronormative behaviors, that all men are sexually attracted to women and all women are sexually attracted to men, excluding the LGBTQIA community,” McNulty said.

McNulty also pointed to many possible reasons advertisers or producers may decide to be more inclusive in their representations.

Motives she discussed ranged from trying to expand their audience and market for more people to a change
of  image.

“Maybe they want to be all inclusive and don’t want to hold any privilege over anyone, so they show this ad (JC Penny advertisement) with a gay couple and say ‘this is who we are.’ It could go either way,” McNulty said.

Mary Frances Casper, associate professor in the Communication Department, was pleased when she saw the JC Penny commercials representing same-sex couples.

“Father’s Day was the first one and then a million moms were like ‘we are going to boycott you’ and so they (JC Penny) were like ‘really? We’re going to put it out for Mother’s Day too.’ I thought it was fabulous,” Casper said.

With shows like “Modern Family” embracing the non-traditional families and the nation slowly but surely recognizing same-sex marriage, Casper found the push toward more inclusive media representations to be the right climate.

“I like the same-sex thing,” Casper said. “Those ads have been there for years and years, but they just did separate ads that ran in publications specifically for those audiences. Now you see them in other places.”

The first advertisement representing a same-sex couple was an Ikea ad in 1994.

This specific ad was only aired once on two U.S. television markets after a myriad of backlash to Ikea, including boycotting, phone-jamming campaigns and a bomb threat led to the ad’s removal.

Casper and McNulty agreed there is more strategic ambiguity in modern media and more diverse family representations, but both still see room for improvement.

“Ads are to some extent targeted to specific markets, but ultimately the goal for advertisers is to get their ad out to as many people as possible,” McNulty said. “I think they are starting to realize that they need to be more inclusive and that means more diversity in identity and family structure as well.”

About the author  ⁄ Tabitha Bower

Tabitha Bower

Tabitha Bower is currently the Editor-in-Chief of The Arbiter. She became involved with The Arbiter after taking a News Writing class, and began by writing for both the News and Features sections as a journalist for one semester before taking a position as the Arts and Entertainment section editor. She is double majoring in English with a writing emphasis and communication with a journalism emphasis. After college she dreams of being employed in the field of journalism, traveling the world and instructing hot yoga. Tabitha is originally from a small tourist town on the coast of Maine, but has lived in multiple areas of New England, Florida, Hawaii and Okinawa, Japan. She once spent a year backpacking, scuba diving, surfing and basking in a hammock with a drink in Southeast Asia. She also has the talent of juggling school, work, looking fabulous and being super mom to her three-year-old son, Aiden.