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January 03, 2001 06:59am
UK Agency Probes Lesbian Ad
Source: PlanetOut
by: PlanetOut News Staff

SUMMARY: A billboard for a gay British Web site with a pair scantily clad women kissing is raising eyebrows as well as traffic -- and has inspired enough complaints to launch a standards review.

A major British Web site targeting the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) community, Queercompany.com, was confident that its new advertising campaign -- believed to be the country's first to feature overt lesbian and gay images -- would attract the attention of "upmarket" gays and lesbians without creating too much controversy, but the taboo-breaking poster which debuted December 28 has attracted the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). After receiving a handful of complaints, an ASA spokesperson said the watchdog agency would be "introducing a preliminary investigation, which we do after we receive any complaint. We will be approaching the advertisers." Previous complaints about Queercompa! ny! 's advertisements have been rejected by the ASA, but this campaign comes hot on the heels of a major public hue and cry over another highly suggestive poster.

Queercompany had found that its earlier campaigns were not provocative enough and left the St. Luke's advertising agency in September for the maverick Hackney-based Anti-Corp to conceive the latest presentation. The 30-foot ad now appearing on one of London's largest, most prominent billboards features two underwear-clad women kissing in bed with the caption "Thank God for Women"; smaller renditions are set to be displayed throughout the city and in subway stations. When the poster was unveiled the ASA promised to monitor the campaign -- which was not difficult since the illuminated poster stands only a few hundred yards from the authority's headquarters -- but that it would take no action unless complaints were received. The ten complaints generated by the Queercompany ad were nothing compared to the recent record-breaking 730 complaints about model Sophie Dahl being pictured wearing only jewelry and high-heeled shoes to promote Yves Saint Laurent's Opium perfume (whi! ch! has been withdrawn by ASA's order for causing "widespread offence"), but enough to trigger the ASA investigation. A Queercompany spokerperson told The Guardian newspaper, "It is very sad that people should complain about a very tender, romantic image which is not pornographic like the Sophie Dahl campaign."

The Internet company expects the new lesbian ad to pass muster with the ASA, although its officers are prepared for a renewed battle when the gay male version of the poster comes out in mid-January. Queercompany's early December national print ads also inspired complaints, but ASA found the objections had no merit. Those ads showed a male couple embracing under the headline "I'm Queer. And by the way this is not an apology" and a female couple holding hands beside the words "No White Wedding. Sorry Mum."

Reactions to the kissing lesbian poster have not all been negative, however. The Guardian reports that Queercompany has received 140 supportive e-mails and a request from police for copies to use in the department's sensitivity and diversity training programs.

That -- in addition to the obvious commercial motivation -- is what the ad campaign is all about, according to Queercompany joint chief executive Henrietta Morrison, founder and director of the specialist publisher Arberry Pink. She told the London Evening Standard, "The ad isn't intended to annoy people, although it does aim to challenge assumptions. ... If people don't like it, they are saying they don't like the realities of gay lifestyles -- which I defend."

Morrison founded Queercompany with long-time activist and English Teddy Bear Company founder Dominic Richards, who told the London Times in November that the venture aimed "to become a one-stop shop for the discerning queer consumer with an unrivalled range of e-commerce services." Political observers say Richards' involvement indicates the tacit approval of the Prince of Wales, whom they believe would otherwise have not allowed him to remain a trustee of the Prince's Trust. Richards also serves as chair of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

An initial investment of pounds 3.5 million from the Swedish venture capital firm Smedvig Capita launched the GLBT news-information-leisure-commerce site in October. The company expects to achieve profitability by late 2001 or early 2002.

But if John and Marie Denholm get their way they'll be nipping at those profits before then. Their daughter Tabitha, whom they say is neither lesbian nor bisexual, is one of the models who posed for the ad, and they're looking for someone to sue. The Denholms are sure Tabitha could not have known the 300 pound job would land her in the center of controversy, although she was quoted in a tabloid saying that she is in fact bisexual. No other comments from Tabitha herself are likely forthcoming, as she is now vacationing in Los Angeles after finishing her degree in cultural studies. The other model, whose name has not been released, is also on holiday abroad.

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