Can Ads Make Gay Men Homophobic?

By Marko Markov

Shortly after moving to the Netherlands, I saw at a train station a poster ad that left me deeply conflicted. It invited gay men to try out “non-stop cruising” with the help of a dating app. On the one hand, I was thrilled by the societal openness the ad symbolised. But at the same time, I was troubled by the message it was sending to straight people about me as a gay man. It turned out I was not the only one. That experience inspired a research project which I conducted as part of my studies at the University of Amsterdam.

LGBT+ people and the media: It’s complicated 

Today, the (Western) world is a far better place for LGBT+ people than it has ever been and the media is I was not the only one for the rapid progress. Ellen DeGeneres and Will & Grace broke down the closet door, unleashing an era of successful openly gay entertainers and popular gay-themed TV series, movies and advertising campaigns. Still, the LGBT+ characters appearing in mass media continue to be largely stereotypical. Gay men, for example, are often portrayed as flamboyant, feminine and enjoying plenty of casual sex. This might have unintended consequences.

Unlike other minorities, LGBT+ people rarely have openly LGBT+ role models in their families and communities. Instead, they rely on the media to act as a mirror in which they can see others like them. This can be pretty useful, especially for young people discovering who they are. However, when gay characters like Jack from Will & Grace look or act differently from most men in the straight world – the world we all live in – it’s not the straight way that’s perceived as being off. One possible consequence is that gay and bi men end up feeling negative about their own sexuality, which then dents their self-esteem. Such developments have been linked to serious further problems, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Putting my hunch to the test

I set out to investigate the possibility of a harmful effect of stereotypical gay ads by recreating the situation I was in at that train station two years earlier. 67 gay and bi men living in the Netherlands participated in my online experiment. Roughly half of them saw a mockup poster ad of a gay dating app that promoted “hookups round the clock”, bringing up the stereotype that gay men prefer frequent casual sex. The rest saw an ad for a gay dating app dedicated to long-term committed relationships. To bring the participants’ experiences closer to the real world, I placed both ads inside a photo of central Amsterdam.

One of the two poster ads used in the experiment
One of the two mockup poster ads used in the experiment

My expectations, however, did not materialise. The stereotypical ad did not make the men who saw it more negative about their sexuality compared to those who saw the romantic ad. Neither did it lower their self-esteem. Still, the results did confirm that gay and bi men who have more issues with their sexual orientation have lower self-esteem – an unsurprising, yet valuable finding.

So, are gay stereotypes in ads harmless?

It is tempting to conclude that stereotypical gay ads have no negative influence on gay and bi men’s well-being. This would let advertisers off the hook and give them carte blanche to continue exploiting gay stereotypes. It would also discourage LGBT+ and mental health groups from applying extra scrutiny. However, such a conclusion would be premature.

The vast majority of the participants in my study were in their 30s and 40s and not a single one was younger than 23. Older people are much more likely to have built more or less stable confidence in their own sexuality and personal worth. This might be one of the reasons why the stereotypical ad didn’t have the expected impact. Meanwhile, the group which is probably most affected by such ads – young people – was completely absent from the experiment. I can only imagine the panic in the head of my 16-year-old insecure and hopelessly romantic self had he been publicly invited to pursue steamy gay three-ways.

This blog post was originally published on the website of the University of Amsterdam in July 2018.

© 2021 Marko Markov. All rights reserved.