April 18, 2024

KT Business

The Business Servicess On for You

The gay Guinness ad that never ran

5 min read

For LGBT+ History month, I wanted to raid the queer advertising archives for a lesson about bravery.

It’s 1995, I’m in primary school presumably plastering pasta shapes in PVA glue. At the same time, Ogilvy & Mather was producing groundbreaking and brave new creative work for Guinness. It developed a series of ads, including one named “Bicycle” that would later receive a Gold Lion at Cannes Festival of Creativity in 1997.

One of the ads in the same series was in the can and never ran. It was an ad featuring a gay couple. And Guinness bottled it.

All of this has happened before

In the UK in the mid-90s the media was stoking a moral panic about gay people. In 1994 we saw the peak of deaths from HIV/Aids and HIV diagnoses in the UK. The HIV epidemic was being referred to as “the gay plague” with an effective treatment still almost two decades away. It was illegal to educate about LGBTQIA+ people in schools – especially in sex and relationships education. By 1995 acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships had grown but the majority of Britons (55%) still viewed them as wrong. In part acceptance had grown due to bravery and compassion shown by figures like Diana, Princess of Wales and firsts like EastEnders‘ first gay kiss in a British soap opera; but the 90s was very much still a hostile environment for the queer community.

Against this backdrop, creatives Jerry Gallaher and Clive Yaxley at Ogilvy & Mather quietly developed their concept for Guinness. Directed by Tony Kaye, stylised in black and white, a messy male stereotype, suited and booted in a rush to leave the house and head to work. Their partner is a stay-at-home homemaker who we’re led to assume is his wife, rubber gloves up to the elbows, cleaning up after him as Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man accompanies the montage. The last seconds of the ad reveal his male partner as there’s a kiss to the cheek. The ad closes out with the tagline: “Not everything in black and white makes sense.”

I spoke with Patrick Collister who was executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather and wrote the brief. He presented the work and he claims the agency got fired for it. He spoke of the power of the piece, the ad “zigs” before a “zag” at the end. 

He recalls how Marketing Week ran a story ahead of its airing after a conversation with the marketing director of the brand. The Sun then ran a headline ‘Bottoms Up’ the following day above a picture of a pink pint and The Sunday Times ran a two-page article questioning the value to advertisers of the gay market. Collister was called into the office of the chairman of the brand’s owner. The first words from Sir Anthony Greener’s mouth: “What have you done to my brand?”

The brand hadn’t been brave enough to face down the backlash and run the ad. So it sat on the shelf.

Collister tells me the ad was designed to be “provocative”, “absolutely mixing in culture” and to be “commenting on social attitudes” to shake its “for your granddad” image. He concedes proudly that “the ad was completely ahead of its time” and believes Guinness could run the ad today with success. It had tested well against the young audience it was seeking reconsideration from but the press had scared the board into wanting to bury all traces of the campaign, even seeking a court injunction to do so. It signalled the end of the relationship between Guinness and Ogilvy & Mather. The agency produced award-winning work for Guinness in “Bicycle”, while in the process of being fired. And the Guinness marketing director Rob McNevin didn’t last either, according to Collister.

The story goes that it only saw the light of day because of an error. Collister speculates that something more intentional may have gone on. It eventually found its audience through social media almost 20 years later and is often spoken about among adland’s queer community today.

All of this has happened again

In 2023 another beer brand – Bud Light – developed work making the queer community visible with transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney. Dylan found herself at the centre of a vicious backlash against “woke advertising” when Bud Light gifted her a can with her face on it. In the weeks leading up to Pride month last year, a false and damaging narrative developed that booking trans+ talent in ads would lead to reputational and financial ruin – or “go woke, go broke”.

There are parallels with the 90s, in the negative media attention influencing brand response, and the nervousness that’s become prevalent across the marketing industry, leading to queer invisibility in the creative work.

In the UK today we have a media stoking a moral panic about trans+ people. The government is consulting on guidance that would make life more difficult for trans+ pupils – with echoes of Section 28. The same British Social Attitudes survey is showing a regression in attitudes toward trans+ people. And while a majority of the British public are still supportive of trans+ people, almost four in every 10 people disagreed that trans people should have the right to change the sex recorded at birth on their birth certificate.

Bravery is giving way to timidness. Brands, agencies and industry bodies are telling me that showing allyship to trans+ people is taking a political position. And I’ve heard from trans-inclusive brands that  they’re just not up for braving a backlash a second time.

Who’ll zag first?

We’re seeing a sizeable minority of marketers take the wrong lessons from last year. The Contagious Radar report tells us that when asked how they feel about “purpose”, one in four marketers felt that the Bud Light campaign was a “real wake up call to dial it down”. We’re also seeing DEI investment reduce.

Major Players’ Future of Work survey found over half of business leaders (51%) don’t have specific DE&I budgets and aren’t able to plan strategically or create initiatives altogether. Things are regressing. In 2021, Workday found that 72% of organisations had a dedicated budget.

I’m experiencing this myself. It’s proven incredibly tough to progress conversations with trans-inclusive brands to develop sponsorships for a new not-for-profit initiative I’ve founded, Trans+ History Week. This week-long conversation and series of events is offering brands a unique and authentic way to support the community. The initiative will invest in 20 trans+ creatives to tell stories of trans+ history. And still, some are too afraid of a backlash to show their support.

Wrongheaded thinking threatens to hold brands and our community back in a year when we really need support. Queer-centred storytelling is effective. Brave creativity is effective. Bottling it does damage to both brands and our community.

Bartle Bogle Hegarty said it best about creative bravery: “When the world zigs, zag.”

So, who’s going to zag first?

Marty Davies (she/they) is joint chief executive of Outvertising, the marketing and advertising industry’s LGBTQIA+ advocacy group; and co-founder of Trans+ Adland, a grassroots community group of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex people across the world of marketing and advertising. They are also the founder of creative strategy consultancy Smarty Pants and founder of Trans+ History Week.


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