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.