’So Gay’ Not So Good: Ad Council Takes on Slur

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 8, 2008

The Advertising Council has headed up media campaigns geared toward public service for 66 years. Now it's pitching a new message: respect for GLBT people.

As reported in an Oct. 7 story published by The New York Times, a new series of ads, aimed primarily at young people, invite the audience to think about carelessly derogatory language aimed at gays and lesbians. One phrase in particular is addressed by the ads: "That's so gay."

The new campaign allies the Advertising Council with the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, which provides educational materials to schools across the country and works to reduce anti-gay bullying by students and staff.

The campaign is designed to educate young people, especially students, about the harmful effects of derogatory language, and to help discourage the harassment of gay and lesbian teens by their peers. The new campaign is scheduled to be publicly unveiled Oct. 8 in Washington, the Times reported.

GLSEN has budgeted about $2 million to the new campaign, and ad agency Arnold Worldwide is working on it for free.

The campaign's slogan doesn't mince words about choosing one's words: "When you say, 'That's so gay,' do you realize what you say? Knock it off."

The campaign also boasts a new Web site,, the article said.

Both TV and print ads are part of the new campaign; one television commercial shows humorist Wanda Sykes chiding a group of boys who have just uttered the phrase, "That's so gay," while other ads feature actress Hilary Duff.

The campaign coincides with the annual report, issued each year by GLSEN, on rates of harassment suffered by GLBT students. The newest report, not yet released, shows that 9 out of 10 GLBT teens reported being verbally abused in 2007, with nearly half saying that they were physically attacked due to their sexuality.

GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings was quoted in the article as saying that an ad campaign like this one is "something I dreamed about for 10 years," with Jennings cited as saying that the current campaign has been developed over the last two years.

Said Jennings, "If you follow hateful language, you eventually get hurtful behavior.

"The chain of events begins with kids learning it's O.K. to disrespect people."

Jennings called te Advertising Council's campaign "by a million miles, the largest public education campaign on L.G.B.T. issues."

Added Jennings, "I think they know they're going to take some flak."

The Advertising Council was optimistic about the public's response. Said president and chief executive Peggy Conlon, "Before GLSEN made the investment, we agreed we would poll the media community" in order to assess the receptivity of the media's climate for such an ad campaign.

Only "a very small percentage said they would not run the work," Conlon continued, and that was "not because it was 'radioactive,' but because they thought it was not appropriate for their target audience."

The demographic focus of the "so gay" campaign is teenagers; media outlets with an older audience were the ones expressing the concerns.

Conlon added that the Advertising Council "always had dialogue with [the GLBT] community... focused on a different issue," namely, HIV/AIDS.

Conlon went on, "We're always looking for important messages on discrimination.

"We thought this would be a fabulous campaign to take on because it's surprising how pervasive this language is."

The ads all take on a direct tack to get their message across. In the ad featuring Sykes, the comedian tells a boy, "Please don't say that," going on to ask him what he'd think if she were to belittle something by comparing it to a "'16-year-old boy with a cheesy mustache.'"

The Times reported on other ads in the same vein; "That's so 'Jock who can complete a pass but not a sentence,'" says one print ad, with another reading, "That's so 'Gamer guy who has more video games than friends.'"

The ads have a common tag line: "Think that's mean? How do you think 'That's so gay' sounds?"

Adds the adverts' moral, "Hurtful. So, knock it off."

The tone and directness are designed to address teens the way research indicates they would prefer to be addressed.

The article quoted the chief creative officer at the New York arm of Arnold Worldwide, John Staffen, who said, "Kids that age are tough and media savvy; they see through things quickly."

That means that for a successful ad campaign aimed at teens, "you can't be too preachy, and you can't sell too hard."

Rather than preach, Staffen said, the campaign seeks "to show the situation in a new light [and] to point out this language can be hurtful and let the kids make their own decisions.

"Ultimately, we believe they will make the right decision."

A Colorado teen who said she had been assaulted on the basis of being a lesbian gave voice to the hope that the campaign might "open people's eyes a little bit."

17-year-old Lynette Schweimler, who attends Thunderridge High School in the Colo. town of Highlands Ranch, recounted that the group that attacked her "used a lot of derogatory language."

Schweimler suggested that very language, and its every-day occurrence, may have been part of the underlying cause for the attack she endured: derogatory, anti-gay language "builds up intolerance," she said, adding, "it's used so often, people don't understand the meaning of it."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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