Ad Council To Teens: Anti-Gay Language Isn't Cool

by , Nov 19, 2008, 9:00 AM
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In an ad targeting Latinos in California, a little girl comes home from school and tells her mother how she learned that a prince could marry a prince. While it's hard to point to any one tactic that prompted voters in California, Arizona and Florida to outlaw same-sex marriage, exploiting cultural taboos among African Americans and Latinos played a significant role in its defeat.

We've seen framing theory at work behind presenting intelligent design as bona fide science or in the recent presidential election, where president-elect Barack Obama successfully depicted John McCain as a George W. Bush clone. Successful strategic communicators understand how powerful framing a debate can be.

However, this current repudiation of same-sex marriage will only make it harder for the Advertising Council's new effort to educate teenagers about how painful and harassing anti-gay language can be. The Ad Council partnered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to launch a national multimedia public service campaign in October, based on research from the 2007 National School Climate Survey, which found that nearly nine in 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers say they have been verbally harassed in school because of their sexual orientation. Almost half report being physically harassed.

The campaign targets kids 13-to-16. In the 30-second spots, actress Hilary Duff and comedian Wanda Sykes verbally castigate teenagers who use the expression "that's so gay." The ads try to counter the tendency of teens to equate the word "gay" with something bad or unpleasant. When a teenage girl in the "Fitting Room" spot asks her friend if she likes the shirt she's trying on, the friend replies, "That's so gay." Enter Duff, who tells the girls they shouldn't use the word gay to refer to something bad. "It's insulting," Duff says. "When you say 'that's so gay,' do you realize what you say? Knock it off."

Ad Council senior vice president for campaigns Heidi Arthur says the effort, the organization's first to address gay, lesbian and transgender issues, prompted 62,000 visits to the Web site www.ThinkB4YouSpeak.com in the first three weeks of launching; the average visit lasted about 3.5 minutes. The Web site includes an interactive pledge form where teens can contribute alternative phrases to "that's so gay" and a dictionary tool that illustrates the meaning of words.

Tackling a controversial subject can be tricky business for the Ad Council, which depends on donated media from networks that air PSA spots gratis. GLSEN worried that the gay theme would automatically disqualify the spots from being aired, since the networks traditionally shy away from controversial content. The Ad Council solved the problem by creating a campaign that specifically focused on a message to promote tolerance for gay youth. MTV made an early commitment to air the spots.

However, given the election results on the gay marriage referendum, no one can predict how a tolerance message will be received. "We obviously can't look at our campaigns in a vacuum," says Arthur. "People are receiving messages everyday, and there are messages that have a relationship to our campaign. How it is perceived is yet to be determined."

Given the climate surrounding gay tolerance, it took guts for the Ad Council to create a campaign for GLSEN. And despite its impossible motto to "offend as few people as possible," the Ad Council took on a complicated and controversial issue, then delivered a campaign that frames the message the way it should be framed.

It's not about whether a prince can or even should marry a prince. It's about teaching teenagers tolerance for different lifestyles. With a country currently embroiled in two wars and bitter partisanship, tolerance seems to be in short supply. It's time to change the dynamic.

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