Claire Beale on Advertising

A gay kiss in a US commercial? It's still a bit of a (Procter &) Gamble
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The Independent Online

Luke and Noah first kissed on 17 August 2007. They made history. The first ever gay- male kiss on daytime US television. As it happens, it was barely a kiss, more of a peck. Last week, though, they were at it again – mouths open, this time. And they've sent the world's biggest advertiser into a real spin.

Luke and Noah are stars of America's second longest-running daytime soap, As The World Turns. And it's a soap in the real, beginning-of-TV-advertising sense of the word. It's a television programme produced by an advertiser: Procter & Gamble.

It is hard to imagine the fuss that has ensued from Luke and Noah's lip-locking. After last summer's smacker, Procter & Gamble Productions held off allowing any further fumblings for fear of an outcry. Except that is exactly what they got: a barrage of criticism for prudery and discrimination. After all, heterosexual couples are seen smooching all the time.

So, after 211 days, 14 hours and 45 minutes (according to the blog, which was clearly on the edge of its seat in anticipation), P&G relented. Homosexual passion was allowed another outing and, surprise, surprise, P&G got... a barrage of criticism. Since that kiss ran, US pressure groups have waded in to complain that "Procter & Gamble promotes explicit open-mouth homosexual kissing".

The American Family Association is urging supporters to bombard P&G with complaints, and has posted a sample letter for them to use. Its founder and chairman, the Rev Donald Wildmon, has described the kissing scene as "repulsive".

P&G has had trouble with gay kisses before. Back in the mid-1990s, it pulled its ads from an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine because two female characters kissed. And P&G has had problems with the American Family Association before, too. The AFA boycotted P&G brands because they'd been advertised in shows such as Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Can't-win, can't-win.

Anyway, this time it looked like P&G was standing firm in its support of Luke and Noah's kiss: "P&G is a company that values diversity," it said. "We strive to be a responsible advertiser, sponsoring programming that enables us to connect with a diverse consumer base." But then they wobbled, and put it to the vote, inviting consumers to call in support or criticism of the plot line.

It is easy to see the AFA's outrage as a prime example of US conservatism – bigotry, even – at its worst. But we should not be hastily smug in our liberalism. Gay love in ads has an extremely controversial history in Britain.

Back in the mid-1990s, news emerged that Guinness and its ad agency of the time, Ogilvy & Mather, had made an ad featuring a gay kiss. And oh, the fuss. How could this most masculine of brands have taken such a risk? Was it bold and brave, or ridiculously foolhardy? No one ever found out the answer because Guinness denied the ad even existed and nothing ever appeared before the public. The ad certainly did exist, at least in test form, but it wasn't long before Guinness was looking for another ad agency. Not long after, Peugeot also sparked controversy with an ad for the 406 featuring two men kissing. But was it a gay kiss, or the kiss of life? The debate generated more press coverage than for any other ad that year.

Of course, gay imagery is far from unusual in ads, particularly those for fashion labels. It's the kissing thing that generates heat. in 2006, a TV ad for Dolce & Gabbana watches drew 89 complaints because it featured a fleeting kiss between two men. The ASA set a benchmark when it ruled that the ad was perfectly acceptable, saying: "We did not consider that a kiss between two men automatically made an ad unacceptable for broadcast."

But for many mainstream brands, suddenly throwing a potent gay element into their communications might not be a wise move. Strong brands generally have built up years of emotional resonance with their mass market; suddenly sending out unrelated signals, like showing gay couples, can unsettle the familiarity consumers feel for a brand. For some advertisers (perhaps like Guinness, a decade ago), that's reason enough to do it: shocking and surprising us can create real impact, if you've got the courage to see it through. Ironically, the risk is that you could end up alienating your gay customers, who might feel patronised and/or exploited.

For Procter & Gamble, that most mass of mass-market advertisers, playing it straight down the middle is the safe and sure option. But when it comes to making a soap opera that's supposed to reflect real life, incorporating gay relationships is perfectly natural. And, as it turns out, rather advantageous. If P&G can weather the current anti-gay-kiss row, it can sit back and count the benefits: PR for the show is buzzing and audiences, which were flagging, are rising.

So it looks as if the gay kiss has been a risk worth taking. But then, you'd expect a bit of shrewd commercial thinking from the world's biggest advertiser, wouldn't you?

Mother reels in the movie plaudits

From a soap manufacturer making television programmes to an advertising agency making feature films. Mother is developing a habit for developing content. You might remember the mini-movie it did a few months back starring (the PG Tips) Monkey. Then it followed that up with a comic about London, inserted into Time Out.

Now it has gone the whole hog, making a proper feature film, directed by Shane Meadows who made the award winning movie This Is England.

The Mother film is called Somers Town and it's proper stuff, shortlisted at the Tribeca Film Festival and set for cinematic distribution in Britain. It has has won rave reviews and is being hailed as Meadows's best film. And you would never know there was the cold hand of commercialism involved. For Mother, it is another expression of the potent creativity that lies within the agency. But the other commercial prong is the involvement of Eurostar. Mother lost the pitch for Eurostar's ad account last year, but got the train company back to the table with the Somers Town idea and won Eurostar over.

The movie is about a couple of misfit teenagers and, yes, Eurostar features, though the product placement is subtle. It's only when you study the credits that you appreciate the extent of adland's involvement: Eurostar's marketing chief Greg Nugent and Mother's founder Robert Saville are executive producers.

Naturally, at this point we should debate the potential commercial effectiveness of the concept, the likely payback for Eurostar, the financial rewards for Mother. But I'm not sure these are primary drivers. The Somers Town project is exciting, it's different, it's cool. And there aren't many adverts you can say that about.

Claire Beale is editor of Campaign.