Is the advertising industry raising the bar?
ODEL, one of Colombo’s prominent department stores, has broken new ground in advertising with a print creative for jeans depicting two females in an unabashed expression of lesbian eroticism. The ad, which comes with the payoff line ‘The perfect pair’, is a clear departure from the ‘traditional’ culture of flaunting sexuality that has been part and parcel of the advertising industry the world over.
The culture police may or may not pounce on the ad and censure ODEL, but the truth of the matter is that all societies have gays, lesbians and bisexuals in addition to heterosexuals, the relevant percentages being roughly equal across time and space. It is ‘queer’ but not considered enough reason for outright condemnation; people generally being ready to live and let live. What people do in private after all is their business, as is who they do it with.
A palpably Western fascination with formal rules and institutionalization of propriety has certainly put out roots in other cultures. Just the other day, the Pakistan Supreme Court determined to allow transsexuals to have their own gender category on some official documents. Sri Lanka didn’t have marriage registration until the middle of the 19th Century, but that didn’t stop cohabitation and neither did it make ‘family’ untenable. ‘Marriage’ came with a need to track inheritance of land given the complications of a matrilineal system. With it came Victorian morality as well as patriarchal values. And laws, including those that refer to sexual orientation.
The ad, which its creators defend on the basis of ‘creative license’, therefore snubs the law that considers gay and lesbian sex ‘illegal’, never mind societal permissibility. It is quite likely that those who subscribe to ideologies framed by Judeo-Christian morality and others who have internalized Victorian morality would object to the ad.
Odel’s head of marketing, Upendra said that ‘the perfect pair’ refers to ‘jeans and the top’ (not denims and the color blue), and that the idea ‘was inspired by international trends’. The girl-girl picture was chosen ahead of girl-boy and boy-boy pictures, he said.
Odel, whose CEO, Otara Gunawardena was recently featured in India’s ‘Verve’ magazine and is considered a fashion icon and head of a trend-setting enterprise, defends the ad referring to ‘international trend’ which they’ve incorporated into Odel’s theme of the month, ‘denims and the color blue’. It is not clear whether lesbian eroticism or advertising that promotes agenda rather than brand is the ‘trend’ referred to here.
Recently, a North Carolina-based magazine, ‘Weddings Unveiled’ refused to carry an advertisement of an Atlanta-based wedding photographer, Anne Almasy, because it showed a lesbian couple kissing at their wedding (gay marriages are legal in certain states of the USA). The ‘trend’ then, remains unclear.
So was Odel promoting a brand or pushing an agenda? Upendra said ‘Odel is not just about clothes, it is about promoting a lifestyle’ and brushed off ‘acceptability’ issues with ‘if it is not acceptable, we won’t be promoting it’.
The point here is that Odel is coming out of the closet, so to speak, in a self-consciously Western manner as per ‘creative right’ and ‘ideological persuasion’. In doing so, Odel deliberately ventures into a new dimension in the use of sexuality and sex in advertising. The good and bad of it, the embrace or rejection, whether it will set a trend or be a one-off effort, only time and public perceptions will determine.