Michael Wilke: Making The Ad World Safe For Gays

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Michael Wilke doesn’t find a brutal prison rape funny. That is why a seemingly humorous 7UP ad that ran last year on national TV is now listed as a “Negative Example” on the Web site for Commercial Closet, the New York nonprofit where he is executive director.
In the spot for the pop drink, a spokesman in a jail jokes about not bending over or being left alone in a cell with a man. “Advertising embraces stereotypes,” said Mr. Wilke. “But not all stereotypes are created equal. And not all stereotypes are negative.”
Who is to judge? Commercial Closet hopes to fill that role. Since it signed on in May 2001, it has tracked TV advertising to see whether it portrays gay men and lesbians in a fair fashion. Are they police, then, waiting to pounce on anyone who is politically incorrect?
No, insisted Mr. Wilke: “We are not a watchdog. We are not a policing organization. What we are doing is providing information to business. Business can choose to use it or deny it. We believe that if they deny it, it will be to their detriment in the long run. And what we want to do is provide them with good information and a road map on how to do this better. It is not about an activist approach, where we go to companies and say, `You did bad.’ We are not threatening to hit them with a big hammer. But, rather, I lecture at places that I am invited to speak. And the information on our Web site is accessed free. We get about 120,000 visits a month. There have been over 3 million visits since the project launched. And I regularly speak to well-known corporations, including Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Quaker Oats, IBM, American Express and Chase.”
Mr. Wilke’s new career began while he was a marketing and media industry reporter for Advertising Age, published by Crain Communications, which also owns TelevisionWeek. While there he started a column on gay portrayals in advertising. It was called Commercial Closet.
“There isn’t a lot of regular reporting in the area,” Mr. Wilke said. “I learned at Ad Age that every six to nine months the media would rediscover gay marketing as if it just fell out of a stork’s mouth. What I mean is that there was no institutional learning going on because no one covered this as a regular subject, aside from myself.”
When Mr. Wilke left Ad Age, he landed at a nonprofit whose power and influence is made possible by the global reach of the Internet. It finds and captures advertising throughout the world, archives and analyzes it. “We’ve got over 1,300 ads collected so far,” said Mr. Wilke, “with more on the way.”
“He is very dedicated,” said Howard Buford, founder and CEO of Prime Access, a New York ad agency that delivers gay audiences. “He sees it as an important mission for gays as a whole. He understands the importance and the power of images in popular culture in terms of shaping societies’ thoughts about gay men and lesbians.”
In light of a summer in which “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” entered the mainstream vocabulary, and with the success of shows like “Will & Grace,” there is no question that gays are being embraced by the media as never before.
Many advertisers target gays because they often consume at higher levels than their heterosexual counterparts. The theory goes that while married men and women buy diapers, single gay men and women use their disposable income more for travel and leisure concerns. However, that is not what the new Commercial Closet is about. It is interested in how gay images are used in mainstream ads. Mr. Wilke and Commercial Closet offer paid consulting services to business.
Commercial Closet also spotlights “Positive Examples,” which recently included a Levi’s commercial in which gay youth talk about being disliked, in addition to an American Express spot in which gays are seen as business partners.
In this case, beauty is in the Queer Eye of the beholder.
“The mistakes and successes are gauged by the responses from within the gay community about how they would like to be represented,” said Mr. Wilke, who is openly gay. “But it is not a singular vision. It is something that we learn through the feedback that comes through the Web site, where visitors go in and vote on the ads and submit commentary after they have watched.”
“No other audience segment has an organization that fulfills that role,” noted Mr. Buford. “This speaks very directly to the importance of inclusion in the gay market and what an important value that is to them. It is very important to be included, not just in political terms, but there is a strong desire to be included in advertising as well.”
Ultimately, it isn’t just about selling cologne, insisted Mr. Wilke. As the message was illustrated in the brilliant Oscar-winning movie “Boys Don’t Cry,” it can be a matter of life and death.
“Advertising, as part of media, has a huge impact on society’s views of minorities,” said Mr. Wilke. “With regard to the gay community, there are still, for many people, lingering taboos and the possibility of violence. So, the idea here is that advertising can do more than affect our brand preferences. It can also affect how we think about each other.”