Classic cartoon enemy musclemen Popeye and Bluto haven’t kissed but they have made up in this animated campaign behind Minute Maid orange juice. The two have overcome their differences to such a degree that some in the gay community (and the straight media too, such as Slate.com ad reviewer Rob Davis) have wondered if the sailors are supposed to suddenly be romantic partners.
The two play like school children on a swing, a see-saw, bury each other in sand on the beach, and get tattoos together that say “Buddies for Life.” At the end, they ride a two-person bicycleùpassing usual romantic interest Olive Oyl, who calls out “Oh, boys!” and they ride past her without notice. She offers a confused, if not suspicious, look as they pedal away.
An ironic development for Minute Maid, given the anti-gay “Save Our Children” crusades by former Florida Orange Juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant in the 1970s.
Before the campaign was conceived, Dave Linne, the Popeye ad’s creative director at ad agency Leo Burnett Co says the concept is “the opposite of the clich? of getting up on the wrong side of the bedö where people wake up in a good mood.
Linne came up with about 12 conceptual examples of people acting out of character and being nicer than normal, including an elementary school cafeteria line that resembles a Depression-era soup kitchen — except for one cheery server. Another example has a husband doing “wifely” weekend activities such as laundry and brings breakfast in bed to his wife to her surprise as she wakes up.
They also wanted an example of classic enemies who become friends. “We looked at movie villains and there are so many arch enemies, so we thought, ‘Let’s do an animated spot.’ We looked at lots of cartoon characters and we liked Popeye and Bluto for two reasons: I haven’t seen them in a commercial before, and they’re human characters instead of animals.”
So as they were making the ad, the creative team decided to put Popeye and Bluto in various playful situations. “The only reason we put them on a two-person bicycle was because it seemed so stupid,” Linne says. As they pass Olive Oyl, who Linne notes “is usually the catalyst to make them fight” not even she can get between them this time.
Linne says gay innuendo was not intentional but is intrigued about its possibility. “I think it’s interesting if you can read it both ways. I guess it’s working on all kinds of levels,” he mused.
While Linne seems impressed that his work can be read into by the gay community, the same cannot be said for officials at Minute Maid headquarters. “We’re not going to go there,” says Dan Shafer, a spokesman for Houston-based Minute Maid. “Any intent to draw a (gay relationship) parallel would be wrong. Anyone who knows Popeye and Bluto understands that’s not the case, there’s no intent like that.”
Commercials: Out of the Closet
Is Popeye gay? An ad company using the cartoon sailor’s likeness says no, but the commercial is still being featured on a new site of gay-themed ads.
POPEYE AND BLUTO may be the most recent celebrity couple to be outed by the media.
In a recent Minute Maid orange juice ad, the pair is seen palling around on a swing-set, burying each other in sand on the beach and riding a bicycle built for two as they gleefully pass by a scorned Olive Oyl. They even get matching tattoos that say “Buddies for Life.”
The animated spot, created by the ad agency Leo Burnett, is one of the latest additions to The Commercial Closet, an online museum of gay-themed ads from around the world, which launched Monday.
CommercialCloset.org compiles video clips and storyboard stills of hundreds of commercials featuring gay characters or themes, including several that never made it on the air. The archive includes ads representing 150 different ad agencies and 250 major advertisers, including American Express, Coca-Cola, Nike and the Gap.
Ranging from innocuous to offensive, the ads are grouped into four major categories: positive, negative, neutral and gay vague; and 50 subcategories such as “hustlers/ pornographers/murderers/pedophiles” and “sissies and queens.”
Michael Wilke, a former reporter for Advertising Age, created the site to promote awareness of the “evolution in the portrayal of lesbians and gays in advertising as it reflects the public’s perception of them,” and to raise money for a documentary film he’s making to further explore that theme.
Over the past 30 years, “there’s been an evolution from complete invisibility to popular stereotypes to more neutral and positive portrayals of gays in advertising,” Wilke said.
While there’s an increasing number of gay-themed ad campaigns cropping up today, according to Wilke, it’s still a mixed bag. “There’s definitely an increase in gay-positive ads, but the negative stereotypes continue to be a popular source of comedy in commercials,” he said.
Transgendered individuals in particular almost always end up the butt of the joke in commercials, which earned them their own sub-category in Wilke’s archive, called “(Straight) Dude Looks Like A Lady.”
But not all ads in this category are negative. Some manage to cast transgender characters in funny situations without making them out to be villains or clowns.
A 1996 Australian commercial for air-freshening spray Domestos, for instance, riffs off the cult classic Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, featuring a Terrance Stamp look-alike who asks to use the ladies’ room in a roadside bar. Finding it filthy, she pulls Domestos out of her purse and clears the air. Later she proclaims the bathroom “fit for a queen.”
“It’s not that transgendered people can’t be funny,” Wilke said, “but there’s a difference between laughing at someone and laughing with them.”
Although there may be more gay-themed ads on the air today, there’s a popular misconception in the media about who gay people are and what motivates them as consumers, according to Kathy Renna, a director at the media advocacy organization Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
“There’s the perception that gays and lesbians are very affluent, own three cars and buy 100 CDs,” Renna said. “That’s not reflective of the whole gay community. One thing that is true is that it’s a very loyal demographic.”
Companies with gay-positive reputations include American Airlines, Absolut vodka and Coors, she said.
But while marketing to gays and lesbians is an important priority for many corporations, advertisers and ad agencies must still walk a fine line when depicting them in ads.
Today, ads featuring gay people among other minorities in a happy-people world are relatively safe bets for corporations wanting to project a multicultural image.
A 1994 Ikea ad about a gay couple buying a dining table together, for instance, was controversial as one of the first gay-positive commercials by a major corporation.
Part of a three-part ad campaign depicting people in alternative lifestyles buying furniture -– the other two being a single mom and a white couple with an adopted Asian baby -– the ad was meant to “reflect real life and real people and not the middle-of-the-road all-American family,” according to Kathy Delaney, the executive creative director at Deutsch, the agency that made the ad.
But while homosexuality remains a touchy subject fraught with political correctness, that doesn’t mean advertisers should only approach it with kid gloves, Wilke said. Still, many agencies and advertisers would rather avoid the topic altogether than open a can of worms.
Then there’re companies such as Calvin Klein, Diesel and Benetton that, instead of shying away from controversy, promote a fashion-forward or youth-oriented brand and deliberately provoke people with their ads.
A notorious example is Benetton’s 1992 “Pieta” print ad depicting AIDS activist David Kirby on his deathbed. The emaciated Kirby, surrounded by his friends and family, bore an eerie resemblance to Jesus, which sparked controversy among Christian groups and AIDs activists who were uncomfortable with the religious tone used in association with the disease and, ultimately, to sell clothes.
On the other hand, the ad was also one of the first in many countries to show AIDs in the context of real human suffering and compassion. Although it was singularly criticized, the ad was part of a larger, ongoing campaign for AIDs prevention and awareness that included the distribution of condoms in Benetton stores.
Some companies, by contrast, seem reluctant to acknowledge any controversy their ads may create.
The Popeye and Bluto spot, for instance, is included in the “Gay Vague” category, because the advertiser’s message related to gay people isn’t very clear. In fact, there’s no substantial proof that the two adversaries are in fact lovers, as they are never seen kissing.
In a interview with Wilke, the creative director for the Popeye ad seemed pleasantly surprised at the suggestion that it implied a relationship between the two erstwhile foes, and that the spot was simply meant to show two enemies who become friends, supposedly transformed by drinking Minute Maid orange juice.
Minute Maid, meanwhile, firmly denied that Popeye and Bluto are an item.
“Any intent to draw a (gay relationship) parallel would be wrong,” Minute Maid spokesman Dan Shafer told Wilke. “Anyone who knows Popeye and Bluto understands that’s not the case, there’s no intent like that.”
Ad Report Card: Minute Maid Makes You Gay! (Happy, That Is)
Some months ago the Ad Report Card devoted not one but two installments to commercials that turned on references (oblique or otherwise) to homosexuality. Often the reference served as a punch line of one sort or another, and in some cases I was critical of the way in which this or that advertiser used gayness as a joke. Responses were many and spirited. Some suggested I was being ridiculous, seeing gay themes where there were none. Others, some claiming to have inside knowledge of the ad business, argued I was naïve, overlooking the benign influence of gays who work in “ad creative.” I have no way of checking the latter claim, but both critiques came to mind when a couple of people e-mailed me recently about a Minute Maid orange juice spot featuring Popeye and Bluto. The ad is part of a series, the theme of which is that drinking Minute Maid makes you gay.
As in happy.
Now, some observers have suggested that, in addition to promoting the happy-making power of Minute Maid, the Popeye spot might just be an example of “gay vague,” along with another commercial that I haven’t seen, which is airing in Europe—read this for more. You can see the spots in the U.S. campaign below: the Popeye one, another featuring Bobby Knight, a third about a “helpful hubby,” and a fourth centered on a suspiciously cheerful lunch lady. My main focus is the Popeye spot.
Popeye The ad: Here they are, two of the most famous rivals in cartoondom, playing happily together on a swing and then a seesaw. Popeye good-naturedly pats sand over Bluto on the beach; sappy pal music plays. The pair gets matching “Buddies for Life” tattoos. What’s going on? An announcer says cheerfully: “Somebody had their Minute Maid this morning. It takes a minute, but the feeling”—the unbridled joy and affection we’re seeing here—“lasts all day.” Popeye and Bluto pedal along on a tandem bike. Olive Oyl waves (“Oh boys!” she calls), but they ride straight past, blithely ignoring the object of their traditional erotic rivalry.ADVERTISEMENThttps://39598048fe002d9e70fc861e576fdf63.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Coach Hmmm. Perhaps it’s ridiculous of me to ask, but what exactly is it that’s preventing these Minute-Maid-drunk boys from including Olive in their fun? On the other hand, what is it that makes it inevitable that almost any prominent male pair is inevitably subject to some kind of what-if-they-were-gay speculation—good-natured, homophobic, or somewhere in between? (Perhaps you’ve heard spurious gossip about the relationship between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Or read my Slatecolleague David Plotz’s exploration of the fan fiction subgenre devoted to the imagined couplings of Kirk and Spock, among others. Or recall a New Yorkercartoon that one of my correspondents remembers, featuring none other than Popeye and Bluto holding hands, having finally figured out “where all that anger was coming from.”)
Bed What about the other Minute Maid spots? You could say that they all play it straight. Hothead basketball coach Bobby Knight, having had his Minute Maid, coddles and dotes on his players, bursting into the post-game locker room to ask “Who wants a treat?” A spot featuring a surprisingly helpful husband has him forsaking football to bustle around neatening things up, heading off to “market,” and setting his iron for chiffon. A chipper lunch lady minces through a school cafeteria asking, “Who wants tiramisu?”
School Anyway, subtext or no subtext, this is a pretty good campaign. All the spots, but especially the Popeye one, are attention-getting and make a clear case for the alleged powers of a morning glass of Minute Maid. The helpful hubby installment is the weakest, but the Bobby Knight one is hilarious. Mushing together grades for all four into one composite score, I’d give them a solid B. When I watch these ads, I feel … happy.
- Commercials: Out of the Closet, Wired, 5 August 2001, by Aparna Kumar https://www.wired.com/2001/05/commercials-out-of-the-closet/
- Ad Report Card: Minute Maid Makes You Gay! (Happy, That Is), The Slate, 7 May 2001, by Rob Walker https://slate.com/business/2001/05/ad-report-card-minute-maid-makes-you-gay-happy-that-is.html