It’s incredible to think that only 5 years ago JC Penney were boycotted by One Million Moms for featuring a lesbian couple in one of their mother’s day ads, and yet nearly 20 years before that in 1994 Ikea broke convention and featured a gay couple in one of their ads.
At the time Fred Danzig, editor of the trade magazine Advertising Age said:
“It is one small step for Madison Avenue, but it is one giant leap for the gay community, there has never been anything like this before.”
It was unheard of to show a gay relationship in any campaigns at the time, and the fear of a backlash was real. the campaign was done by Deutsch, at the time Donny Deutsch, chief executive of Deutsch Inc., the New York agency that created the Ikea ad posed:
“Why has the ad industry waited so long?” and then answered, “It’s simple: You have a lot of advertisers afraid of backlash.”
And backlash there was a few East Coast Ikea stores were targeted by angry protesters who jammed phone lines. One store in Hicksville, N.Y., was briefly evacuated after a bomb scare. No bomb was found.
“Openly promoting homosexuality will upset America’s mainstream and cost the company business,” said Robert Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative, Washington-based think tank.
Angered that the ads portrayed gays people as “normal” and equate a live-in relationship with marriage, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association urged members not to shop at Ikea and to call or write the company with their complaints. The group, which was headed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon.
“We don’t believe Ikea should run these ads because they are offering a distorted viewpoint of homosexuality,” says Patrick Trueman, the group’s Washington-based director of governmental affairs. “They are not like any other people in society. They are doing what Christian society and Jewish society teach is a sin. Homosexuals living in a committed relationship are .000-whatever percent of 1 percent of households. This is part of the effort by homosexuals to be normalized in society.”
“We’re not trying to promote a certain lifestyle or make a statement,” Peter Connolly, director of marketing for Ikea’s Philadelphia-based East Coast division said. “This is just part of our overall strategy to try to speak directly to all kinds of customers.” Ikea is also airing other spots, including one featuring a divorced woman and another with a retired couple.
The ad with the two gay men “could cost us some customers,” Connolly said. “But it shows Ikea is for everyone. This will make us a stronger company.”
“We would base a lot of our stories on the real people we would see. We’d go to the New Jersey store—in Elizabeth—and because [the ads] were based on real people, we would watch, observe and see how people use the product, who they were, what kinds of things they were buying. And we’d figure which stores were the best ones. And there were a lot of gay couples there. We thought, Why don’t we do one? Donny [Deutsch] thought it was a great idea and felt like it was a true representation of Ikea’s values, which is they’re always accepting of everyone.
“It’s interesting. I think the reason why people remember the ad was because it was done in a way where it was, “Wow, they really did it.” We weren’t mucking around. It was clear what was going on. And there were bomb threats. There was backlash. There were New York op-eds written about it. I mean, there were all kinds of things happening. In the years that followed—not too long after—Ellen [DeGeneres], she came out. Melissa Etheridge came out. A lot of women came out at the time. So, I think the culture started doing it without it being commercials. But as far as brands, I think they were nervous about it.”
It was undoubtedly a watershed moment and it’s difficult now to believe how controversial it was but when you look at the reaction, things such as bomb threats, we can see what a big deal it was. Well done to both Ikea and Deutsch for followng the courage of their convictions and creating an ad that helped change not only the viewpoint of the customers towards the company, but the landscape of marketing itself.