What does it mean to be gay in American consumer culture?: gay advertising and gay consumers : a cultural studies perspective

Access full-text files




Tsai, Wan-Hsiu Sunny

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



This dissertation investigates how mainstream television commercials in the United States represent gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and how GLBT-identified consumers evaluate those portrayals. Encountering a scarcity of research on gay advertising, queer audience, and GLBT consumers, this dissertation constitutes an early step in understanding how sexual and gender minorities interact with ambiguous gay window and explicit out-of-closet commercials. It also adds new angles to the study of sexuality, gender, race and class through the perspectives of bisexuality and transgenderism to bring the taken-for-granted cultural system of binary thinking into question. The main objective of the analysis is to see how the identity categories of sexuality, gender, race, and class, as well as individual interests, experiences, and political affiliations are enacted in advertising and in queer audiences’ interpretive narratives. The research is grounded in an interdisciplinary theoretical framework of consumer culture theory, audience reception theory, cultural studies, and critical studies. In particular, Hall’s encoding/decoding model serves as the theoretical framework of analyzing GLBT audiences’ interpretive narratives. The general observation is that most participants welcomed the development of gay marketing and advertising. They critically evaluated the text images for stereotypical or positive representations but did not evaluate the capitalist construction of gay niche market or the class-dividing implication of the dream consumer stereotype. The awareness of being a social minority outside of the mainstream society permeated their readings of gay advertising texts. The shared middleclass position or aspiration emerged as a crucial unifying factor over race, gender, age, and religion in their attitudes toward gay advertising and gay marketing in general. Participants perceived advertising as a mighty cultural institution in the capitalist American society. Thus, advertising becomes a legitimate discourse for participants to contest their own situation in the GLBT community and in the American society at large. Gay window commercials were viewed as compatible with the history of queer invisibility and understood in relation to their closeted experience. Out-of-closet commercials that offer clearly recognizable GLBT images were interpreted in a comparative framework of “what we really are” and “how we are seen by the mainstream society.”