The latest advertising campaign from Maple Leaf Foods Inc. is a wholesome collage of scenes of Canadiana. There is a farmer on his land, a locker room of pals suiting up for a hockey game, and among many other scenes, there are two women getting married.
The national TV campaign is the first big brand push for Maple Leaf in some time. In recent years, its advertising has been more product-specific, focusing on its Prime meats or the life-changing properties of bacon. The new ad is a big investment in increasing Canadians' awareness of and affinity for the Maple Leaf parent brand. And it is one more example of an increasing openness among companies to include gay couples among the wholesome images of day-to-day life in their advertising.
Many companies do have a desire to stand up for issues they believe in. But in advertising, the calculation rarely allows for risk without reward. Major brands such as Maple Leaf, Coca-Cola Co., Amazon and Mondelez International Inc. are betting marketing dollars that supporting gay rights will attract more of the latter.
This is a change that has been in the works for some time. It may seem an obvious shift; after all, it is nearly a decade since same-sex marriage became legal in this country. In 2010, an Environics poll found that seven in 10 Canadians support gay marriage.
But the debate is very much ongoing among some Canadians and among many more in the U.S., where much of this diverse advertising is being produced. It was not that long ago in the grand scheme of things – just 17 years – that Ellen DeGeneres's character came out as a lesbian on her sitcom, and advertisers pulled their commercials from the episode. A Chrysler spokesperson said at the time that the company did not want "to get in the middle of a highly polarized environment."
Things are different now. In its Super Bowl commercial – the highest-profile and most expensive TV advertisement of the year for any U.S. marketer – Coca-Cola chose to showcase Americans of diverse backgrounds, including two fathers rollerskating with their daughter. (Coke declined to comment for this article, saying the company prefers that the ad speak for itself.)
Recently, the 90-year-old brand Honey Maid released an ad featuring real families, including two men swooning over their new baby. It concluded with the tagline, "This is wholesome." It has been viewed online more than five million times.
The response to the ad was 10:1 positive to negative, according to the company. In order to build its buzz, Honey Maid created a second video responding to the criticism. Negative online comments were printed out and used to build a paper sculpture of the word "Love." That second video attracted more than a million views in the first day alone, with no paid advertising to support it.
"As a marketer, for something to really hit a chord, and for people to take note and have a million people view it in a day, it says that we were really connecting with them," Gary Osifchin, senior marketing director of U.S. biscuits for parent company Mondelez, said. "People were ready to receive that message."
And it makes business sense: Google searches for the brand name are up 400 per cent since the campaign launched. And while it's too early to comment on sales figures, Mr. Osifchin said, things are looking good.
"In 10 years, we'll look back and it will be a lot like looking at segregation in the fifties," Sarah Gavin, senior director of marketing for Expedia.com, said. "Being on the right side of history is always a good place to be. … Advertisers are starting to get brave on the topic."
In 2012, Expedia launched an ad online, telling the story of a man named Artie Goldstein coming to terms with his daughter's marriage to another woman. The emotional ad was released to coincide with the first presidential debate, and during a referendum on same-sex marriage in Washington State, where Expedia is based. It was part of the "Find Yours" campaign based on the idea that travel is transformational; for this ad, Expedia used the tagline "Find your understanding."
The company received hate mail. But it also saw visits to its website jump. This past June, Expedia chose to place the ad on television, in its full three-minute version. Ads that long are almost unheard of on TV, and it represented a big boost to Expedia's ad budget.
"I have four very white little kids. I drive a minivan. My life is the classic life that people would put in an ad," Ms. Gavin said, speaking from her home in Seattle. "It is important to me that the ads my children see reflect the diversity around them. … And it is even more important for people in these diverse groups to feel welcomed and normal when they turn on their television."
Maple Leaf began a program of nationwide consumer research a few years ago, and found that Canadians often emphasized diversity and openness as part of what makes them proud of the country. While the new ad was not intended to make a statement, that research informed the company's choices. It has so far received no negative feedback.
"Consumers should be proud of how brands present themselves, and what they stand for," Maple Leaf chief marketing officer Stephen Graham said. "That is and has always been the way. You want to associate with people that you respect … those things are often more important than the transactional elements."
Media depictions of gay people – including in advertising – help to promote awareness and support inclusion, Stephen Hartley, president of PFLAG Canada, said.
Advertisers are not always keen to involve themselves in LGBT issues, though: during this year's Winter Games in Sochi, for example, Olympic sponsors were largely reluctant to take a stand on Russia's anti-gay policies. Most said they preferred to keep the focus on the athletes.
And while depictions of clean-cut, telegenic gay couples are becoming far more widespread in ads, there is a part of the LGBT community that has benefited much less from the shift in attitudes.
"Marketing, media, television shows, they're coming out with more and more of the LGBT community included in them. This is definitely a step in the right direction … but there is a lack of the T at this point," Mr. Hartley said. He is hoping the new campaign can bring the conversation one step forward – including with advertisers.
"I'm not saying that every commercial should include the LGBT world, but it is nice to see that it is out there," he said. "They're very, very important. They're promoting awareness."