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Marketing the Rainbow

Impulse 1998, UK

In 1998 we saw the first gay ad in the UK, by Unilever’s Impulse: a young woman walks down the street, drops her shopping and a good-looking young man stops to help her. They flirt a little, hands touching as they pick up an apple. She thought she could be in - but then a second man, who was with the first from the beginning, signaled for the first man to come with him.

For anyone who didn't pick up on the fact that the men are in fact a couple, the ad then flashes to a series of images - two other men in leathers lean together, there's a rainbow flag and a dog wearing a leather outfit, and Quentin Crisp even makes a brief cameo appearance. Apparently she didn't realize she was in the gay Village in New york, the girl suddenly becoming a sort of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz - everybody laughs.

Remarkably enough, the Lesbian & Gay Foundation considered it controversial and it was later ranked among the Top 10 Most Controversial Gay Advert. 

The tagline is 'Men can't help acting on Impulse,' which does seem to imply that it would only take the right body spray to 'turn' a gay guy straight. It could be read that the guy is bisexual and therefore does find the woman attractive, but so much effort is put into reinforcing the fact that this happens in a gay area that the 'joke' just wouldn't pay off if he was bi. That said, it's quite a fun advert, which got a lot of airtime and few complaints. No kiss though.

2017 Red Rose tea, Canada

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...")

Sunsilk - Hairapy 2006

In 2006 Unilever launched a Sunsilk campaign called Hairapy, building on the gay stereotype of fussy hairdressers. The promotion was aimed at women though, tapping into the anxiety that many women feel on a ‘bad hair day’. The resulting "Hairapy" program centered on a Sex and the City-inspired promotion with gay male characters showing up in ads and on the streets to help women get through their various hair traumas. The Hairapy guys offered their version of tough love to women in need of honest feedback about their problem hair, creating a snarky tone that jibed nicely with the personality of the brand.


Unilever was established in 1929 as an Anglo Dutch multinational: in 2018 it became British. Products include food, condiments, ice cream, vitamins, tea, coffee, breakfast cereal, cleaning agents, water and air purifiers, pet food, toothpaste, beauty products and personal care. Unilever is the largest producer of soap in the world. Their products are available in around 190 countries. Unilever owns over 400 brands and had a turnover in 2020 of 51 billion euros. Thirteen brands have sales of over one billion euros: Axe/Lynx, Dove, Omo/Persil, Heart (Wall's) ice creams, Hellmann's, Knorr, Lipton, Lux, Magnum, Rexona/Degree, Lifebuoy, Sunsilk and Sunlight. Other famous brands are Chesebrough-Ponds, Ben & Jerry's and Dollar Shave Club.

Many of these brands, some older than 100 years, have done Marketing the Rainbow over time, but Unilever also has done some corporate campaigns. Here are a few examples of both. 

See separate articles for Axe/Lynx and Ice Creams

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.

19 UK
19 Brighton

2019 Pride

A number of Unilever UK & Ireland brands including Lynx, Impulse, Radox, Vaseline, V05 created a range of limited-edition Pride products. Each brand worked in partnership with The Brighton Rainbow Fund, a fundraising charity who provides grants to local LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS organisations. To continue to raise awareness beyond Pride, these products were available throughout the year, not just during Pride celebrations. Lynx and Impulse were also sponsoring Brighton Pride.

They also joined Open for Business, a coalition of leading global companies to show they mean business on taking action on LGBT+ inclusion globally.

To show Unilever’s commitment to championing diversity and inclusion, and to creating a workplace where employees are able to bring their true self to work, Unilever’s headquarters in London were lit up with a rainbow flag during London pride week. The Canadian head office is located just a stone's throw away from the 'gayborhood': they painted their sign in special rainbow bands to celebrate World Pride Toronto 2014.

In 2020 Jope signed the Declaration of Amsterdam – a global statement of support for LGBT+ rights. “The Declaration of Amsterdam has a strong symbolic value for us,” says Frank Galestien, who works in Unilever’s Foods & Refreshment team and is organising some of their Virtual Pride events in the Netherlands. “Signing the Declaration is something that makes us extremely proud. This is a very important signal on how much inclusivity is valued,” he adds.

Alex Owens, founding member and corporate sponsor of proUd
Alex Owens, founding member and corporate sponsor of proUd

The Global Employee Resource Group proUd was launched in 2020. “We will be a beacon of inclusion for the LGBT+ community and allies, amplifying their voice in society and at Unilever, to enable them to be their true, authentic selves,” says founding member and executive sponsor Alex Owens, who is a VP in Unilever’s Market Analytics team.

2019 United We Stand

Unilever claimed to have a first-of-its-kind Pride campaign with United We Stand. Partnering with agency RanaVerse, Unilever saw the opportunity to turn over the status of being an “official WorldPride sponsor” to six grassroots organizations, which otherwise would not have had access to a corporate Pride sponsorship. They created films for each organization, each featuring a different ambassador. The films were directed by Tourmaline, a passionate advocate for the trans community.

The episodes are:  Tommy Dorfman x AXE x Anti Violence Project, Lachlan Watson x Schmidt's x Trans Justice Funding Project, Aaron Philip x Dove x Audre Lorde Project, Tituss Burgess x Vaseline x New Alternatives and Big Freedia x Shea Moisture x Destination Tomorrow.

2015 New York Pride

Unilever U.S. celebrated PrideFest NYC and #LoveWins by showing its pride and changing the iconic U logo to a rainbow design on their website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Unilever also welcomed all U.S. employees to show their Pride by changing their social avatars to the new logo for the weekend.  During the Pridefest Unilever employees, in partnership with Ad Council's Love Has No Labels initiative, manned a tent where visitors could stop by and take pictures at a .gif photo booth and learn more about Unilever's commitment to Diversity & Inclusion.

Openly gay comedian Mario Cantone ("Sex and the City") became the voice of Hairapy in TV ads in which he doled out blunt criticism to women with flat or frizzy hair. The campaign generated 240 million impressions and distributed more than 1.15 million gift cards, allowing Sunsilk to exceed its market share goals in the launch's first month. There also was a website with 3 male "hairipists," who were there to save women from their hair problems. AdRespect: "This campaign obviously utilizes the whole female idea of a "gay best friend" who solves all the problems female friends can't. It's your gay best friend to the rescue in these Hairapy commercials!"

Sunsilk - Hair Talk 

Years later, Sunsilk released a beautiful commercial, about a boy who wants to be a girl. The film stars, and was inspired by the true story of 20 year-old Rock Kwanlada, first runner-up Miss Tiffany Universe 2017. It was an instant hit on social media, with 2.5 million organic views in the first 48 hours. Within 2 months, it had sparked a nationwide - and in fact worldwide - conversation around gender and stereotypes, gathering over 37 million views in Thailand alone. #BethatGirl

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


Iglo/Langnese 2001, 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."

Schermafbeelding 2021-07-26 om 20.39.21
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-26 om 20.38.28

Langnese 2001, 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.


The rainbow packaging was complemented with an equally bold set of POS material. Two of the largest Superdrug stores hosted a unique Pride Tunnel shopper experience, created in collaboration with POS specialist InContrast and experiential agency N2O. Giant archways and connecting walls were lined with themed product displays, forming an impressive walk-through centrepiece in each store. POS elements for smaller stores were similarly themed, with vivid rainbow floorstands drawing attention to the exclusive Pride-packaged product range. Every item carried clear messaging that encouraged shoppers to ‘Take Pride in You’. 

Early print ads, starting late 19th century, have often contained images or text that would now be perceived quite differently. Interestingly, this is often the case with soaps - like Ivory and also Unilever's Lux. This ad from 1944 could be qualified as 'gay vague', if only by the image of the two men - speaking about soap and 'movie queens'! - and the use of the word 'sissy'. But the conversation is uber-masculine soldier speak: "Here's a soap with a machine gun sweep... Mows down dirt, grime and grease with effortless precision... But "taking dirt for a ride" is as far as the ride goes. For while Lux Toilet Soap acts as quickly and is as deadly to the foe, it leaves the victim's surface smooth as a movie queen's skin... Pure skin joy, that's what it is! Lather quick and plenty. And does that lather get it goes after! ... And speaking of movie queens - Lux Toilet Soap is their particular pride and joy. Practically all the stars use it to save the surface!

But it's no sissy soap - It's swell, effective, real soap - As fine as the buck-a-cake French stuff you can't afford. Try a cake... it only costs ten cents! And once you've dipped your beezer in a bucket of Lux Toilet Soap suds, you'll never let a lesser soap touch your hide." And so said Lux...

The beginning...?

Omo 1997, France

A very early campaign by Unilever using 'gay tease' or 'gay vague'. A short man shows up at a karate class and everyone stops and looks at him - he's wearing a pink robe instead of the requisite white one. They all come over as if to bully him. Later we see the man in the shower next to a much larger man, and they both share a looks at each other's genitals. Predatory or shared interest? It's hard to tell. This ad (dubbed in English) is for Omo's phone support service called Careline. The spot won a Gold Euro EFFIE in 2000.

Pond's 2001, Philippines

A remarkable commercial from staunchly catholic Philippines, released already 20 years ago. This is a twist on the old ad concept of a product making a woman so attractive that even a gay man will fall for her, if only momentarily. The ad is not unlike the British Impulse commercial above.

Pot Noodle 2015, 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. Well done is the (lower class) family in the end, who support the Vegas dreams of their son.

Rexona 2005, Colombia

This is a 'gay vague' commercial from Latin America. An older man sits alone at home when the doorbell rings. A chubby, hairy "bear" is at the door, puts down a boombox and starts dancing absurdly - wearing only a towel. The older man watches without expression, as others in his building look on. The next shot is of "5 minutes before," when the dancing man was taking a shower at home. He is speaking to his girlfriend in Spanish about the soap he's using. AdRespect gives this ad an "Equal" rating, because it portrays this man as a likable character, and there is no negative reaction from others at his odd (if not gay-like behavior).

2018 Dollar Shave Club - Get Ready

In 2016 Dollar Shave Club was acquired by Unilever for a reported $1 billion in cash. Two years later, Gillette's "toxic masculinity" was just screaming for an answer. Dollar Shave Club rebooted their 2018 commercial "Get Ready" and let Frank Sinatra sing "I Gotta Be Me" to a great variety of men (and some women) who are shaving different parts of their bodies. No supermodels, but everyday people, including bears, nerds, drag queens, a gay couple and many others. "Whoever you are, however you Get Ready...
Welcome to the Club."

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. https://youtu.be/WVjiV1TtpE4

2007, Robijn the Netherlands

Dutch laundry product Robijn had openly gay magician Hans Klok (who rose to international fame due to his residency in Las Vegas with Pamela Anderson) talk about its virtues. Another commercial in this series features gay Dutch scream queen and singer Gordon:

The wordplay is lost in translation, but his nickname "Goor" means 'dirty'. Gordon was also spokesperson for another Unilever brand, together with his frenemy singer Gerard Joling: Knorr.

In faux documentary interview style, "former hairstylist Chauncey FauntLeroy" addresses the camera as he sits in a cushy chair, surrounded by flowers and art, with a tiny Yorkie in his lap, complete with hair bands. Bitterly, he says, "You know, I used to work for one of the top salons in the country. But since women can use Salon Selectives to make any hairstyle they want, well, I had to look for work elsewhere." AdRespect: "While Chauncey is clearly the picture of a stereotype, the ad also finds humor in other ways - such as the irony of being in the wrong job - and does not bring about negativity to his gayness."

2002 Salon Selectives, Canada

Case study: Unilever

Branche: Cosmetics & fmcg

2021 United We Stand, UK

For the 2021 Pride season, there was a British and an American version of this campaign. In the former one, we see a series of portraits celebrating the rich tapestry queer British life.

Aamir and Amir were the first gay South Asian couple to be married in Bradford.

Martina transitioned later in life, and felt it was the right thing to do and has no regrets.

Millie is a lesbian who proudly champions her identity.

AJ and Kai are two young trans men in their early twenties.

2021 United We Stand, USA

Determined to enact real change for Pride Month 2021, Unilever pledged to improve the municipal equality index of five cities in the US rated among the worst in terms of conditions for LGBT+ people. They picked five of 17 that scored 0 on the index, while places like Los Angeles and New York scored the maximum 100. Through United We Stand, local organizations in the five cities – Monroe in Louisiana, Moore in Oklahoma, Clemson in South Carolina, Florence in Alabama and Southern Missouri – will be supported by Unilever year-round, beyond the month of Pride.

This article was last updated on Mar 16, 2022