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Marketing the Rainbow

Canadian tea brand Red Rose (est. 1894) released a cute commercial in 2017, featuring two lesbians visiting one of the parents. Remarkably, the feedback was predominantly positive. The YouYube channel was quite likely strictly moderated so there are no trolls giving their comments, but the like:dislike ratio was almosts 10:1, so that can be taken as a overall positive sign.

Red Rose's older advertisements introduced the catchphrase, "Only in Canada, you say? Pity..." (The catchphrase was sometimes transformed in Canadian popular culture to, "Only in Canada, eh? Pity...")

This article was last updated on Nov 1, 2022

In this print ad from South Africa, Unilever's Flora made a blooper. Over a pink background, a bullet moves toward a heart made out of china with the words “Uhh Dad I’m Gay.” One can only conclude that a father would be devastated when his child came out.

Stonewall, a gay rights group based in the UK, condemned the Flora ad as "offensive and inappropriate"

Other ads in this series with a bullet heading for a heart were ‘Kama Sutra Page 48’ and a controversial one that simply read ‘President Malema.’

Johannesburg managing director of Lowe and Partners, Sarah Dexter, said to The Independent: "I would like to unreservedly apologise for this campaign and the unintended offence it has regrettably caused". Unilever also apologized on Twitter, saying: “This advert was prepared by an external agency in South Africa and was not approved by anyone at Unilever. [since when does a company NOT approve an ad campaign?] The advert is offensive and unacceptable and we have put an immediate stop to it. Unilever is proud of the support that our brands have given to LGBT people, including our recent campaign for Ben & Jerry’s on equal marriage.”

2010 blooper: Flora, South Africa


2001 Iglo/Langnese, Germany

This brand belonged to Unilever until 2006. In 2001 it launched a campaign with art books dealer Holger and his partner dancing instructor Max to promote their new "Vier Sterne" (four star) range. It was in fact the first time that a gay couple starred in an advertising campaign in Germany, and maybe worldwide. The intent was to leverage the idea that gay men are tastemakers. Despite the plan, many of the ads fall back on gay stereotypes as the only source of humor.

Peter Stachowiak, a spokesman for Iglo, told Agence France Presse, "We're trying to sell a new generation of products, upmarket food, aimed at the housewife. We thought the image of the gourmet homosexual living in an elegant interior fitted the mood of the times."

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2001 Langnese, Germany

For their ice cream products Langnese introduced Shue and Tiger in 2001, a lesbian pair. In fact, they took integration of gay couples to a new level. They were incorporated briefly in TV commercials, on billboards and the company web site. The campaign focused on specific individuals, including the gay male couple Peter and Tom, even though the site never actually used the words "gay" or "lesbian." On the 'tattoo pic' we see Peter and Tom (separated by Tiger and joined by George on the far left).

A newspaper in Germany, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, reported: "In the beginning, the creators of the campaign were not quite certain whether they had judged the degree of social acceptance correctly, or whether they were asking too much of their audience. They were afraid that their own perception might be blurred, 'because there are many openly gay men in the media scene.'

The agency carried out a market survey to make sure. The results proved that housewives, pensioners, young people, working men and women unanimously agreed: homosexual men are affectionate, helpful, well dressed, appreciative of good food and have good taste. Almost all of those questioned said that they knew gay men personally.

2015 Pot Noodle, UK

"No matter what your dream, with Pot Noodle #YouCanMakeIt". A story about perseverance, with a twist in the end. Although it is not strictly gay, the stereotyping of the protagonist (clothing, way of walking) and the lip licking of the guy in the audience allude to a gay theme. Bonus points for the (lower class) family in the end, who support the Vegas dreams of their son.

2005 Knorr, the Netherlands

Dutch food brand Knorr had scream queens Gerard Joling and Gordon (better known as Geer and Goor) extoll the virtues of their Beef Chimichurri. Gordon was also spokesperson for another Unilever brand: Robijn

An early example of how gays are used for fun in a commercial. The fact that the logo of Lätta is in rainbow colors is coincidental. AdRespect: "A young man speaks with someone new on the phone and is thrilled that he has landed a hot date for breakfast. He arrives at a large building with numerous apartments. He is too impatient to find the name, so he pushes all the bells. He enters the building, and accidentally finds a feminine man, half dressed with jewelry and long hair, who smiles invitingly at the visitor. At first the man is confused -- but then the woman he was meeting appears at a door on the other side of the corridor and she smiles at his mistake, then so does he. While there is no negative reaction by others, the ad could have been just as effective, however, if the gay man was not made to be stereotyped. Unilever was approached for a gay press story about its advertising but reportedly said it did not want to be featured, as its ad was just a “gimmick” and doing so would otherwise “set the wrong tone.”"

2001 Lätta, Germany

2017 Red Rose tea, Canada

Company strategy

Unilever is one of the world’s most culturally diverse companies and is committed to developing an inclusive culture which acknowledges the contribution of all employees, regardless of their gender, age, race, disability, sexual orientation or any other background. They have a Global Diversity Board providing the overarching vision, governance and target setting for inclusion and diversity across their business.

In 2019, CEO Alan Jope shared a message of Unilever’s support and belief that every member of the LGBT+ community must be treated fairly by society not just for one moment in the year but every day, every week, every month and every year.

Over the years, they have been actively participating in Marketing the Rainbow: both on corporate level as well as many individual brands. Here is a look at their cosmetics division.

See separate articles for Axe/Lynx, Cosmetics, Detergents, and MagnuIce Creams

This clip called "Love it or hate it" was a gay tease commercial from Marmite. Many gays were offended by this British spot's apparent revulsion toward man-on-man make-out sessions. Others were more offended by the fact that "making out during mouth-to-mouth" was just about the most tired cliché in advertising. Unilever said the commercial was not intended to be controversial, but simply continued the theme that people either love or hate the taste of the spread. "There is nothing in the advert which could cause offense," said a Unilever spokeswoman. Dozens of viewers had complained to the independent television commission that the ad portrayed a gay kiss and was screened "at a time when children might be watching" (imagine!!). However, the British ITC ruled that the kiss was a "clearly jokey scenario" and did not portray "homosexual intimacy or indeed sexual or romantic activity of any sort.""

2003 Marmite, UK

2009 Bertolli

In the relatively short period they were part of the Unilever group, Bertolli made a lifestyle commercial for their oven-baked Italian meals. A man dreams away when he tastes the dish, and lands in a very Italian, stylish black-and-white dinner scene. The handsome waiter sweeps him off his feet, kisses him - and then he 'wakes up'. Next to his partner (the waiter)...Payoff: "Add a little drama to your night in".

2020 Brooke Bond Red Label Tea, India

This monsoon-themed spot from Brooke Bond Red Label's Swad Apnepan Ka ("Taste of belonging") campaign, features a transgender tea shop owner, who hands out free tea to everyone stuck in traffic. Initially rebuffed by an older lady in a car, she receives a blessing from the same woman once she has tasted the tea.

It is of course a bit of a shame that the benefactor is first rejected (because the lady suspects she comes to beg for money) but is only 'blessed' when it turns out that her tea is so tasty. Shiva Krishnamurthy, VP Tea and Foods, said: “Brooke Bond Red Label’s purpose is to make India more inclusive. We believe that a cup of tea can help us challenge stereotypes and bring people closer. Our latest TVC is yet another attempt to celebrate diversity and encourage people to embrace it.”

Case study: Unilever foods

Branche: fmcg