Hunky business: Madison Avenue pushes the envelope only so far when it comes to homoeroticism in fashion ads – Fashion
A recent ad from Abercrombie & Fitch featuring a naked young hunk rolling around on an oversize beach ball seem to fall into the category of “homoerotic” advertising. But ad guru Michael Wilke, who created CommercialCloset.org, a Web site devoted to studying images of lesbians and gays coming from Madison Avenue, begs to differ. “I would argue that an ad is only homoerotic if there are two men or two women interacting [in a suggestive way],” he says. “Otherwise, it’s just erotic.”
Clearly, though, the once-stodgy world of fashion advertising has come alive in the past decade, showing a much greater openness toward playing with ideas about sexuality as a way to grab attention for its clients. “There’s obviously a greater acceptance in society now about homosexuality. The taboo is definitely evaporating,” Wilke says. “Advertisers are feeling a greater comfort to explore these subjects, and the gay market is increasingly attractive to them.”
The seminal moment seems to have come back in the mid 1980s when a Calvin Klein billboard featuring an Olympic athlete in his briefs went up in Times Square. Bruce Weber’s epic Marky Mark campaign soon followed suit, and suddenly Madison Avenue saw the power of ads with abs. By the mid 1990s, Dolce & Gabbana, Banana Republic, and other companies were including hunky models in their ads. “I think it was sort of a zeitgeist moment where others began to try it as well,” Wilke says. “What had previously been the only eroticism available had always been female eroticism. What changed was that there was an equity introduced, and there was no longer a double standard. It started with advertising but really carried over to other media. It’s not unheard-of today to see frontal male nudity in a film.”
Surprisingly, given the straight male interest in lesbian couplings, sapphic commercials are still rare. In Wilke’s archive of more than 1,200 ads, only a quarter to a third have lesbian themes. “One would think that there would be a great popularity of lesbian images because of its greater acceptance, but it’s really not borne out,” he says. “My best guess is that gay men are more shocking. Unfortunately, most advertisers are using these images for the purpose of getting our attention.”
The experts in shock value are in the fashion industry, and not surprisingly, fashion ads have been at the forefront of sexing up the commercial world. Last year, Dolce & Gabbana created print ads showcasing erotically charged same-sex pairs, although the campaign ran in only a few publications. This year Gucci offered ads that featured men and women with G’s shaved into their pubic hair. But just a handful of American magazines accepted the ads. It’s not a coincidence that gay men are the leading designers for Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci.
Most fashion advertisers, like Abercrombie & Fitch, still prefer to keep their images provocative and sexually ambiguous. “[Abercrombie’s] stuff walks an interesting line,” Wilke says. “It appeals to a gay audience mostly on the beefcake level. But if it was as homoerotic as the gay community sees it, it couldn’t be successful with straight audiences. I think it’s hard to argue with that line of reasoning. The majority of their clothes are being purchased by the straight community.”
That may explain why Madison Avenue–while cramming the pages of American magazines with pouting, bare-chested hunks–rarely crosses the line to show models of the same sex together, much less overtly homosexual images. “They don’t want to alienate the straight audience,” Wilke explains. “It’s not to say that it never happens; it just doesn’t happen very often. More often we’ll see men and women together in various groupings. Fashion is a category that’s so often about sex, but it’s rarely about gay sex.”
Meers is managing editor at Paper magazine.
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