In 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian to more than 42 million people. A smiling DeGeneres appeared on the cover of TIME magazine with the perfunctory headline, “Yep, I’m Gay.” The article was followed by an exclusive interview on Oprah wherein she explained her decision to go public with her private life.

Around the same time, the eponymous character in DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen also announced she was a lesbian. The coming out episode enjoyed record ratings but nervous brands – JCPenney among them – pulled their ads.

But the worst critics turned out to be the public: Within a year the show’s viewership dropped and was promptly cancelled.

Who could have predicted that 15 years later DeGeneres would be kicking off the tenth season of her critically acclaimed and hugely popular daytime talk show? Add to that this summer’s news that JCPenney (of all brands) has brought DeGeneres on as its spokeswoman and you have yourself a parable wrapped in irony surrounded by a broken paradigm.

Public acceptance of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community, growing political support for gay marriage, and the prevalence of gay characters on film and television are signalling a deep cultural shift at work in the United States since that fateful episode of Ellen. And brands are taking notice.

The Ellen DeGeneres Show is in its 10th season and has won 32 Daytime Emmy Awards.

Queer ad for the straight lad

The past four months have been especially indicative of the advertising world’s relaxing attitudes toward homosexuality, as Slate’s Aisha Harris noted earlier this summer.

In addition to JCPenney, Target, Gap and GM (to name just a few brands) enjoyed moments in the spotlight this summer for campaigns that appealed to the LGBT community even as they were broadcast in the public square.

Target launched a same-sex marriage gift registry, Gap displayed a giant billboard in downtown L.A. featuring a gay couple and GM ran a cheeky Chevy Volt print ad (“Mom, Dad, I’m electric.”) that went viral.

And let’s not forget the controversy stirred up by Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy’s defence of traditional marriage. LGBT rights groups held kiss-ins at several of the chain’s franchises across the nation in protest.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of counter-protesters purchased orders of fried chicken sandwiches in defence of Cathy on “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.”

In 2010 Target suffered boycotts after financially supporting conservative gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who opposes gay marriage.

In an about-face, Target launched an ad campaign in July announcing its same-sex marriage gift registry.

But when given the opportunity to speak in favour of gay marriage, Target’s representatives chose to stay silent on the issue. That decision caused even more backlash.

The point being that Target wasn’t criticized for supporting the LGBT community; it was criticized for not being supportive enough.

Gap print ad two men in a t-shirt

Gap used a real gay couple for its “Be Bright” campaign. This billboard was displayed above a busy street in Hollywood, CA. Image via dailybillboard.blogspot.ca

Politics corrected

Of course, it’s not always clear whether a brand is really there for the community or for the community’s dollars.

Research cited by the 2011 Rivendell Media Press Report [PDF] puts the size of the American LGBT population at 16 million, with a purchasing power of $845 billion.

This July Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife MacKenzie made a record donation of $2.5 million to pro same-sex marriage organization Washington United for Marriage. While it’s important to separate the CEO from the brand, it’s worth noting the couple didn’t donate anonymously.

In a recent NPR interview AdAge reporter Thomas Pardee chalks up the wave of corporate support for gay issues to “the amount of politicizing that’s been going on around gay rights, gay protections, both on the federal level and on each individual state level.”

In the case of Target and Amazon, brand leaders were prompted to make statements about same-sex marriage during a time when the issue would soon be brought to the courts in their respective states.

But there’s more to the story than anecdotal evidence. According to the 2011 Rivendell Media Press Report, three separate polls conducted by major media outlets put national support for same-sex marriage at an all-time high of 52-53 percent.

Despite what Chick-fil-A supporters may have you believe, the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.

Chevy Volt LGBT print ad

Out brands are in

New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter suggests that if television is any indication, the American public is far more accepting of the gay community than it was a decade ago.

He writes, “the cultural battlefield of television has changed markedly since the 1990s, when conservative groups and religious figures objected to Ellen DeGeneres coming out and Will & Grace coming on.”

Since Ellen, TV has been flooded with shows featuring gay characters, including mega-hits like Modern Family and Glee and this fall’s much-hyped The New Normal.

Adage reporter Pardee echoes Stelter, pointing out that these characters are also being represented positively on screen and the shows they appear in are some of the most popular on TV. “It’s difficult for a marketer to ignore that sort of cultural shift,” Pardee says.

While brands like Absolut Vodka have explicitly marketed to the LGBT community for years, other brands are featuring gay-friendly messages with mainstream appeal.

The U.S. government, for example, recently launched a tourism ad that includes a brief shot of a same-sex couple. Ray-Ban’s 2011 “Never Hide” print ad campaign uses LGBT-friendly content as part of its overall message of diversity. The gay couple featured in the series is merely one shade of Ray-Ban’s diversity rainbow.

Even framing the narrative in terms of a “mainstream” public and a “marginal” LGBT community is fast becoming a thing of the past. That’s because marketers are realizing that sexual orientation isn’t always an accurate indicator of purchasing preferences.

The LGBT community’s spending habits are extremely diverse, according to data from a 2009 study by Mindshare. While it may not be surprising that one’s sexual orientation doesn’t directly affect what dish detergent one chooses, it does help account for, as Slate’s Harris observed, the “wave of mainstream advertising by national businesses portraying gay couples” in the United States as of late.

But just because spending habits are as diverse as the colours in a Jackson Pollock painting, that doesn’t necessarily imply a total lack of trends. A 2012 LGBT Community Survey [PDF] found that lesbian and gay consumers tend to be early adopters, are more likely than straight consumers to own smartphones and tend to care more about product quality than brands.

The Mindshare study also found that 30 percent of respondents would choose a particular brand based on its reputation as gay-friendly. In short, it’s better for advertisers to err on the side of inclusivity.

Ray Ban’s 2011 “Never Hide” print ad campaign featured a series of bold acts. A gay couple holding hands in public is one of them.

Not-so-special interests

Part of the reason for the broadening of tastes is that the LGBT community isn’t as ghettoized as it used to be. In Pardee’s Adage piece he mentions a survey by Logo in which only 30 percent of respondents stated their desire to live in a gay community.

Another indication that the lines are blurring, says Pardee, is what’s happening on the LGBT TV channel, Logo. In addition to gay-focused content (like RuPaul’s Drag Race, The L-Word, etc.), the channel now airs shows with a broader appeal.

As Logo exec Lisa Sherman says in the same article, it’s a matter of providing programming that “speaks to their interests and sensibilities.” And it turns out those interests cross over with heterosexual ones.

The media is broadcasting gay acceptance, the political climate indicates it, and advertisers are capitalizing on it. So perhaps that’s the reason behind The Ellen DeGeneres Show’s success: She’s mainstream, she’s gay and that’s the new normal.