Thursday, April 12, 2012

When advertising slogans go wrong, part II: Stonewall

Most Londoners aren't homophobic. Get over it!
Last year I railed against BUPA for its vile Helping you find healthy advertising slogan. Nothing since then has irritated me enough to write about it, but the gay rights pressure group Stonewall is trying its best with a campaign that started running on the side of London's buses last week.

I won't bother with the usual "I'm not prejudiced" blather. Naturally I'd prefer it if you didn't think I was a homophobe who lacked the courage to say so, preferring to snipe at the wording of a bus ad, but this post isn't about what Stonewall stands for. It's about getting a message across. But if you're worried about my liberal credentials, why not copy and paste the "equal and inclusive" mission statement off some MPs website and pretend I said that?

I'd better point out that Stonewall's campaign is in support of gay marriage. It's not exactly clear because the advert seems to confuse opposition to gay marriage with hostility to homosexuality in general. I'm guessing that the tiny text in the picture is a link to Stonewall's gay marriage mini site

Moderate aggression

Stonewall's press release promoting the campaign describes it as "moderate", even though the slogan is one of the most confrontational you'll see. "GET OVER IT!" it bellows, IN CAPITALS!, with an exclamation mark JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU KNOW THEY'RE SHOUTING AT YOU! To gauge the difference in tone between this and normal advertising, imagine two slogans promoting, say, a gym.
Normal advertising: “Get the body you deserve at Goldy's Gym!”
Stonewall-style advertising: “Most people aren't as fat as you! Get some bloody exercise!
Let's get this straight. I know that some people are gay. I don't need to get over it and I resent being barracked as if I did. What's more, according to the latest YouGov survey (which is consistent with pretty much every survey done in the past decade), most people in the UK are equally comfortable with it:
So, three-quarters of Britons support gay marriage or its civil equivalent. London, which is where the adverts are running, has always been more cosmopolitan, liberal and tolerant than other parts of the country, so the number of supporters there must be even higher. So what is Stonewall trying to achieve by its hostile haranguing of people, 80-90% of whom already sympathise with its policies and agree with its aims?

There are a few possibilities here. One is that Stonewall is deeply insecure and is terrified of losing its minority status and oppressed image in an era of wider tolerance, because being gay isn't enough unless you're also a victim. This seems unlikely, but one never knows what subconscious thoughts drive our actions. This attitude was satirised by Little Britain's 'Only Gay In The Village' series of sketches, where Matt Lucas's character can't get over the fact that everyone seems to accept his sexuality. 

Another possibility is that Stonewall is an activist organisation, so it feels it needs to be a bit militant and stroppy. In other words, this is all about self-affirmation. That would also explain why it has recycled a four-year old slogan that doesn't really address the issue at hand.

The other possible interpretation is that Stonewall is doing what the government did 20 years ago, when posters advertising help for the unemployed were mostly put up in prosperous areas with low unemployment. This implied that the government was less concerned with helping the unemployed than with assuaging the consciences of its wealthier supporters by showing them that something was being done for the victims of their policies.

If I were gay and had some spare money to spend on making myself feel better, I wouldn't buy ads. I'd probably buy some shoes and possibly a blender (since that's what I'd buy right now, and I don't imagine turning gay would change how I cook or would make these damned shoes I'm wearing now any more comfortable). If that suggests a pathetic lack of consumerist ambition, I should point out that last time I had some spare cash, I blew it on a nice car and then used it to make myself look a complete arse in a post about accusative pronouns.

Where are the bigots?

The wording looks like Stonewall is really sticking it to the bigots and haters, but if so, why do it in London, which apart from Brighton is the easiest place in Britain to be gay? Why not take the campaign to Northern Ireland or Scotland, where religious opposition helped keep male homosexuality illegal till the 1980s? I'm sure the bigots and haters are much more numerous there than in London or Brighton. But a look at Stonewall's website shows that none of its events are taking place further north than Chelmsford.

This all suggests that Stonewall isn't interested in changing the opinions of those who oppose its aims or in galvanising people who are apathetic. The advert seems to be more about making Stonewall and its more committed supporters feel good about themselves. In other words, it's brand marketing, and in a sense there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is that it appears to be indiscriminately attacking anyone who isn't a vocal supporter instead of trying to engage them, which doesn't seem a good way of widening support for the cause. 

Moral: Polarising opinions isn't a good way to encourage universal tolerance.


  1. "three-quarters of Britons support gay marriage or its civil equivalent"

    I think the point is a civil partnership that is only available to gay couples is not equivalent to marriage. If it were, the 32% that support it but don't support marriage would support marriage too.

    And a sub-editor should know that "If I was gay" should be "If I were gay".

    1. Bah, shouldn't have missed that "was". Shouldn't even have written it in the first place. That's what happens when I don't have my own sub-editor. Fixed now. Thanks.

      My point isn't about the qualitative difference between civil partnerships and marriage. It's about antagonising potential supporters. Those statistics show that three-quarters of Britons are quite happy that "some people are gay" and don't need telling to "get over it".

  2. I don't like these ads. Hell, I get offended at signs telling me to NOW WASH YOUR HANDS. I DO wash my hands. I'm NOT a filthy piggy. And I'm not homophobic, either.

    A less impolite campaign, concentrated in more intolerant locations, would have been a more effective use of money, I'd have thought. I can't imagine someone with homophobic opinions having their mind changed by these block capitals.

    Maybe their purpose is more to show donors that their money is being spent on visible, tangible, shouty-and-proud things?

  3. Enjoyed this post a lot - as you say, shoutiness is rarely an effective method of changing people's mind, and the grammatical/typographic/content combination in these ads might just be enough to provoke the opposite effect.

    For what it's worth I think 'was' is pretty acceptable nowadays, particularly in a blog post that is (despite the subject) chatty in tone. I'm a book editor and rarely change it

  4. Well said. This could also be taken and reinterpreted as get over being gay - as if one could/would! I agree with you this reeks of 'hey ain't we right on!'. Lazy thinking I reckon. Esp as in parts of the world people are still imprisoned/executed for being gay. Focus on those countries instead.

  5. All absolutely spot on ...

    The ad's silliness is compounded by the fact that the banner seems to be telling the hasty reader to climb over a stone wall. It was a mistake to put the organisation's name straight after the imperative statement.

    Of course, people who are trying to strike this kind of oppositional pose often inadvertently make themselves seem foolish in the process.

  6. Some good points but the post would benefit from a good sub edittir to cut down the word count and get straight to the point! :)

    1. I confess I broke a cardinal rule: taking a paragraph from an earlier draft and slipping it in because I liked it, even though it didn't really add anything. As I said to Whealie, everyone needs a sub-editor.

  7. When I first read this yesterday I was really quite cross. Given a day there are still some things in it that are really niggling me.

    You say above that your point isn't about the qualitative difference between civil partnerships and marriage. However, this needs to be considered even quickly in validating your argument which seems to be that people aren't that bothered about people being gay any more (sorry if I'm misrepresenting your argument, this is how I read it). So we have 43% okay with gay marriage and 32% okay with civil partnership and this is put forward as evidence that 3/4 of people are okay with gay people on some level.

    I disagree. That says to me that 3/5 of people do not agree with equal rights for gay people. My parents are okay with civil partnership but they are most certainly low level homophobes.

    I'm not gay myself but I come across homophobia on a near daily basis and hear stories from gay friends that range from muttered comments to violent attacks.

    I live in South London and I work in construction. I regularly work with people who would like to see gay people lynched from the closest tree. I regularly here completely horrid comments in pubs around here and have more than once been approached on the streets by people from quite extreme churches explaining how gay people will burn in hell. Add this to the london borough which was recently plagued by 'gay free zone' stickers and you might understand why I don't recognise the London you put forward. I know there are hugely metropolitan areas but there are also incredibly backwards hateful areas.

    This is partly why I take exception to you saying they should campaign in other areas. I'm sure there are places which are more homophobic than london but I'm not sure putting forward 30 yr old evidence says anything about Scotland or NI. I can't talk about NI having never been but I can tell you Scotland isn't the place it was 30 yrs ago. It has a much stronger drive for equality and human rights than the UK. While the UK talks about pulling out of the ECHR Scotland is fighting to be allowed to appeal directly to it. They're also far further forward in putting in equal marriage and I'm pretty sure equal marriage will be law in Scotland before it is in the rest of the UK. So I just found that a little strange.

    I would guess that the reason Stonewall are using London buses is that it's easier to get advertising coverage on a London bus (only need to deal with one operator TfL rather than 20+ in Manchester for example), you reach more people due to the density in London and you get media coverage. Would this be in the papers if it was on a bus in Carlisle?

    Finally to your main argument, that the message is too harsh and shouty. I disagree but I understand your point. The first time I saw the Stonewall message (quite a few years ago) it struck me as very powerful and very simple. The message is that people are gay and they are equal. Anything else is pointless talking around the point. You can make a more polite argument more subtlety about individual issues but the reality is that there is only one thing to discuss, are there gay people? are they equal to everyone else? okay, lets move on then.

    1. Thanks for taking the time for such a considered response (not easy when something annoys you). I did look for regionalised statistics, but as you say, they're difficult to find. The regional differences weren't the main issue I was tackling, but you make some valid points and they add to the discussion.


    Maybe not the most objective source but the stats come from a youGov survey. I'm struggling to find any other sources. I've found a lot of people being refused FOI requests around this area. Anyway, the linked report would suggest that London isn't any less homophobic than the rest of England. I would be very interested to see any further stats on this.

  9. My main problem with this ad is it's just so derivative - it's so obviously a rip-off of the "THERE'S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE." bus campaign, even down to the all caps. Maybe it's aimed at the same religious audience?

    1. I don't see how it's derivative of the atheism bus-sides campaign.

      I'm pretty sure Stonewall have been running that line for years. And the atheism-promoting ads had a much more polite tone than this one, don't you think?

  10. Clare,

    I think it might be the other way round. Stonewall have been using this slogan for years. Well before the Atheist campaign you mention.

    1. Oops. Sorry! Didn't scroll down.

      Apols for being all derivative of you.

    2. And apologies, also, for spelling "Integral" like a fat-handed twat.

      Now I almost feel like I can't bring Mr Sub-Editor's attention to:

      "An MPs website"?

      Don't you mean, "An MP's website"?

      Mwah ha ha ha.

  11. "So we have 43% okay with gay marriage and 32% okay with civil partnership and this is put forward as evidence that 3/4 of people are okay with gay people on some level.

    I disagree. That says to me that 3/5 of people do not agree with equal rights for gay people."

    With this correction Mein Crustacean amply highlights the fundamentally flawed premise upon which the original post is based.

    The very statistics you quote as negating the need for these ads in fact demonstrate that there is still a fight to be had.

    If that fight happened to centre upon the denial of your right to equality, I'm not certain that you'd be quite so concerned to make issue of the employment of impolite capital letters in the relevant advertisements.

    Katija you say "Esp as in parts of the world people are still imprisoned/executed for being gay. Focus on those countries instead."

    I take your point that there should absolutely be an increased drive towards global activism, as well as enhancements in British public awareness regarding the - often state-condoned - hate-crimes and homophobia endemic in various places the world over.

    However, the fact that various global locations demonstrate severe homosexual inequality across many domains does not negate the very real fight that those individuals in the UK are still engaged in to be recognised as fully equal individuals.

    Inequality is inequality wherever you find it, and blithe disregard of this is offensive to those in the UK currently being told by various polls (see above) that they don't deserve to be treated as equals.

  12. The "fundamentally flawed premise" of the post is that it's counter-productive to be indiscriminately aggressive towards the people whose support you seek. But you go and argue about something else; that's fine with me. The words "this post isn't about what Stonewall stands for" clearly didn't register.

  13. It would have been fine if you just made an argument about the aggressiveness of the advert. You didn't, you went on to argue that homophobia isn't very widespread and that London is somehow less homophobic than the rest of the UK. Both of these things, on the basis of the research available, are wrong.

    You can't have a go at people for not understanding your argument when you bury it beneath several paragraphs of wrong.

    I also fail to see how the statement 'some people are gay, get over it' is 'indiscriminately aggressive toward the people whose support you seek'.

    Firstly I don't see it as aggressive, secondly it's seeking to challenge people who either don't agree with equality or more likely people who haven't thought much about it rather than addressing people who agree with it.

  14. Patrick,

    I see where you're coming from, I did not intend to imply that you disagree with Stonewall's objectives.

    I am aware this area of discussion is a dense and thorny one to navigate, however, I would contend that you conflated the issues of the tone of the adverts with the issue of Stonewall's purpose today.

    You not only accused Stonewall of belligerence for belligerence's sake but also of contemporary irrelevance.

    You based your assessment of Stonewall's relevance on a set of pre-suppositions which were not only dismissive of the real inequality and abuse still faced today by individuals in the UK but as Mein Crustacean has demonstrated are largely unsupported by the research.

    You should not have punctuated your article with such statements had your intention been simply to critique the tone of the advertisements.

    Also, "several paragraphs of wrong" shall be the name of my new band.