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Liberation by Accumulation


by Michael Bronski

I hardly ever drink beer, being a cheap red wine and bourbon sort of

guy, so I was startled last week when I received more then a dozen e-mail (many from

lesbian and gay activists use work I respect) urging me call the Anheuser-Busch company

and voice my support for their new Bud-Lite advertising campaign that features two men

(presumable gay) holding hands with the caption "Be Yourself and Make it a Bud

Lite." The ads have already courted some controversy and in a pre-emptive strike

against the Christian and political right making a fuss about them some gay activists are

mounting a support campaign so that Anheuser-Busch keeps doing the right thing. What’s

wrong with this picture?

First of all, the ads themselves are oddly closeted. The men are

viewed from behind (who exactly designed this ad?) and are faceless, characterless

representations; quite different from all those smiling and laughing heterosexual couples

on the other advertisements. Secondly, while the e-mails suggested that the advertising

campaign was going to appear in many nationally distributed publications, the reality is

that ads will only appear in gay publications. Thirdly, why should I be supporting

Anheuser-Busch because they have decided that they can sell more beer to a targeted gay

male market?

Obviously Anheuser-Busch is not a "gay owned" or

"community" business. They are a multi-national corporation who is doing very

well. Reporting a net income of $319 million in the first quarter of 1999, a 20.3 percent

increase over the same period last year, Anheuser-Busch claims that, as the nation’s

top-selling light beer, Bud Light showed double-digit 1998 sales growth for the seventh

straight year. Over the past five years Anheuser-Busch has aggressively targeted the gay

male market – this year they are contributing $75,000 to San Francisco’s gay pride parade

(it used to be a march) in exchange for much signage – and it has paid off. Studies show

that gay men and lesbians show enormous brand loyalty and will respond to any overtures,

no matter how tentative or insignificant. This new advertising campaign will supplement

the current one now running in many gay glossy mags that features a crumpled up beer can

with the caption: "Go ahead. Use me. Then throw me away." Snappy and sexy, but

one can’t but think this is also the scenario for gay themed advertising when gay people

decide to drink something else.

While there feels that there is something profoundly wrong with the

battle for lesbian and gay rights and visibility being fought in the fields of corporate

and consumer print advertising, the politics of the moment are a little more complicated.

The e-mails I received were a direct response to a threat-of-boycott campaign that Rev.

Jerry Farwell began after the first "gay ad" appeared in the April 21 edition of

EXP, a small biweekly gay magazine in St. Louis. The anti-, and then pro- response was so

great that within days, the St. Louis-based beer company was forced to set up a toll-free

numbers to accommodate all the calls. Supporting Anheuser-Busch for placing money-making

gay-themed advertising makes no sense, but does it make sense to support a corporate

campaign, no matter how pathetic, when it is under attack by right-wing fundamentalist

political forces. Two years ago the Disney corporation found itself in a

tempest-in-the-Mad-Hatter’s-tea cup when they continued with their annual "gay

day" in Disney World and went ahead with a "gay friendly"

non-discrimination policies and benefits package for their gay employees. The Southern

Baptist Convention called for, and almost managed, a boycott of all Disney products by

devout Christians. The campaign was met with general amusement and contempt by the secular

mainstream media. But what if Disney had capitulated to the demands? Certainly employment

conditions are quite a different deal than gay-friendly advertising.

Just in the last two days I received e-mails urging me to write to

Exxon. in support of a shareholder’s vote to amend their non-discrimination policy to

include a sexual orientation clause. The e-mails also suggested writing to Wendy’s and

Burger King, both of whom are large institutional investors in Exxon. But there is more…

At the urging of shareholders, McDonald’s recently implemented a sexual orientation

nondiscrimination proposal. This caught the attention of the anti-gay Family Research

Council, which is urging its membership to write to these restaurant chains, because as

competitors of McDonald’s, they will study McDonald’s policies and considering matching

them. The FRC is telling its members to write to these companies to urge them not to adopt

such policies. And not only does Wendy’s not have an inclusive nondiscrimination policy,

it was one of several companies that refused to advertise during "Ellen’s"

coming out episode. The Family Research Council is the lobbying arm of the country’s

largest conservative religious organization, Focus on the Family. Their alerts reach

hundreds of thousands of people.

The idea of fighting for basic employment securities and benefits -

such as nondiscrimination policies and domestic partnership benefits – by public e-mail

referendum is repulsive. Although, to be fair, the move to add sexual orientation clauses

in nondiscrimination policies has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade and

there is little chance that those gains will be lost. But at this point in time the

lesbian and gay community – both political and social – is in a unique place. On one hand

it is gaining, in the corporate and business world, some ground for institutional policies

that provide equal protection under the law. And the fight for these has been fought on

many fronts from the legal to the threat of boycott; many of these fights have been in the

context of conservative and fundamentalist protests. This scenario is confused, for many,

when companies begin to target gay consumers and grant "visibility" through

advertising. Because gay and lesbian images are so rare in the popular media that to many

this looks like a great advance. A situation compounded by companies – Absolute Vodka, Bud

Light, Segrams are the most significant – pouring cash and product sponsorship into

community based events.

While I find the very idea of exploring any politic of liberation

(or even of acceptance or toleration) through the corporate world a dangerous idea, I also

feel that if a company actively, or even passively, discriminates against an oppressed

group I will not patronize them. But logically, does this mean that I should patronize

companies that actively treat their employees well, or who "support" community

events even though it is obvious that such "support" (even when attacked by

right-wing and fundamentalist political groups) is far more about the bottom line, than a

moral stance? I would prefer not to take part in consumer capitalism, but alas, have found

much of it unavoidable. For the time being I will not congratulate Anheuser-Busch, but

just stick to my bourbon and cheap red wine.

 

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