Budweiser ad is both gay and not-gay, and not about either.

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

This is what the internet is preoccupied with today:

In the Budweiser ad below, are the soldier and the man he calls in a gay relationship?


Did it matter that I prejudiced your opinion by asking the question before you saw the ad?

Most who see it think the man and the soldier are brothers, and the hug is simply an awkward mixture of the brother’s pride, reverence, and relief in the soldier’s safe return home. But some gay viewers saw the relationship between the men as being gay. For example, Mother Jones excerpts a post from a gay blog arguing that, “if you substituted a woman for [the man who hugs the soldier], it would read pretty much exactly like a heterosexual relationship.”

What is interesting is that this is almost certainly true, in the sense that most people would see a heterosexual relationship if the person called was a woman, whereas when they are both men, they see a platonic or familial (i.e. non-sexual) one. But implicit in this is that in the dominant mass-culture any physical or overly familiar contact shown between a man and a woman signifies a heterosexual relationship. You actually need additional information to show (or signify) a more distant platonic male-female friendship.

But in a relationship between two men, the opposite is true. Familiar and physical contact is implicitly platonic, unless additional information is provided. None of this should be surprising; mass media and popular culture are hetero-normative; the presumption is that everyone is straight unless you are explicitly informed otherwise.

And it is precisely within this difference between the semiotic treatment in culture of male-female relationships (presumed heterosexual and intimate) and male-male relationships (presumed platonic and non-sexual) that ambiguity can be introduced that simultaneously communicate two different messages to two different groups. If all the men you know are straight, this is not a gay ad. If you know some gay couples, then the ad can be read as showing a gay relationship.

None of that actually matters, because it all operates on the comfortable plane of consumerism. Is Budweiser talking to straight people, or gay people? Is Budweiser saying gay in the military is okay, etc.

The truth: the two men are most certainly not in a gay relationship, because they are actors playing characters that do not exist outside of this 60-second spot. One of the staggering powers that commercials have that longer form visual media like TV and film do not have is the power to operate almost entirely subliminally, at the level of inference. You see a juxtaposition of images, dialogue, music, sound, an interplay of signs and symbols, and from it you the viewer construct the story. I show you a little girl man with a straight face. I show you a bowl of ice cream. I show you the girl smiling. Everyone thinks (completely incorrectly) that the ice cream makes the girl smile.

Budweiser: the old barn, the checkered tablecloth, Dad at the table in a blue dress shirt (if it’s a solid color it’s always blue in these kinds of ads), Mom at the sink in a comfy robe, cliche picnic condiments, arms in shirtsleeves, the SUV, people doing hard work. You see it all and so fast that you piece a story together that they never told you. Classic images of Americana, of the classic American family.

The only moment that seems out of the ordinary is the hug, which regardless of how you read the characters’ sexuality, is still odd. It’s the needle skipping the groove, it’s the ad saying right now I want you to look at this ONLY. The rest of the commercial is in a state of flow, a nice rhythm, nothing unexpected. This is staged.

And it has to be, because the commercial is actually treading some very thin ice. They want to exploit the image of the soldier returning home, to capitalize on low-hanging emotional fruit: the hug, the tear streaking down the cheek. But it has to be extremely careful: talk about the solider coming home from war, but for God’s sake say nothing about the war itself. It is the event so real that it would shatter the illusion constructed by the rest of the commercial.

So forget the gay-straight sideshow. Look at how it shows you the solider. He places a call in near-total darkness to the guy who is in bed, at home. They are both in darkness. Are they in the same time zone? So where is the soldier, that his return would be met with tears of relief?
Next shot: he loads his bag into a jeep. The jeep is desert tan, but there are very large, very lush green trees behind it. Is this Iraq? Afghanistan? Not the way we have been shown those places. They he travels on what appears to be a very long plane ride that in the split-screen appears to last a day. But when he called the man, it looked like both places were experiencing night? The ad has obliterated any possible semantic coding of the Iraq or Afghanistan war.

If fact, the ad depicts the psychological location of the war. We have pushed the war to the back of our minds, out of the light and under the cover of darkness. For most of us, the war is not an event unfolding right now at a particular place on earth. The war is a concept that we have pushed out of our minds, to be referenced only in the context of political ideology. The solider is in a war in the process of fading from our minds, and Budweiser really doesn’t want to refresh you memory about it.

The solider calls from darkness, somnambulates through his journey, and circumnavigates the globe asleep.

The soldier does not return from the war. He returns from the void. 

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19 Responses to Budweiser ad is both gay and not-gay, and not about either.

  1. whowashere says:

    You’re just killin’ it today PB

  2. JohnJ says:

    Are you saying it’s impossible to intentionally introduce ambiguity in order to communicate different messages to two different groups? If that’s what you’re saying, I think you’re wrong. Politicians do this all the time, typically by using code words that are used differently by partially-isolated subgroups. This sends a signal that “I am indeed one of you though I can’t make that explicitly clear.” Good politicians do this with several different identity groups.

    • Pastabagel says:

      No, I’m saying that it is not only possible, its easy to do deliberately once you identify a semiotic difference between the meaning (the connotation) of a sign in one group and that sign in another (male-male affection in heteronormative culture vs gay culture), OR when you identify a huge change in connotation by slightly altering a sign (male-male affection means one thing, but change the gender of one male to female, and it implies a much closer, much more intimate relationship).

      See also: SUV parked in lush forests, amidst wild animals, babbling streams: appeals simultaneously to hunters and fishermen, and anti-hunting environmentalists.

      • sunshinefiasco says:

        I really like this post, but I have to say that I’m quite intrigued by which symbols supposedly code this commercial as gay. Is it the actual symbols, or is it the context in which the commercial exists?

        I’ll give you the hug, which I agree, is both quite odd and very strategic in terms of avoiding the actual war part of the war. But what else is really there? Do gay males typically call their boyfriends “man”?

        The main reason that anyone is questioning the relationship of the characters in this commercial is because it has been expertly placed in the wake of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal. (I suppose it’s possible that it’s coincidental, but I operate on the premise that almost nothing is coincidental in advertising.) Close enough to the event that everyone still remembers, long enough after that it doesn’t look intentionally linked. Otherwise, people might be calling the soldiers gay, but it would be less of (thought possibly still) a “thing” and more of it would be happening in youtube comments.

        It’s really a bit meta. The same way that they show us a girl, ice cream, and then the smiling girl. They know that we have been looking at that news controversy, and they can make an ad that makes our brain go there while still being able to claim that there’s no subtext and nothing controversial. No matter what your opinion of the ad, the beer, the war, or gays in the military, you are spending a lot more time thinking about Budweiser than you were yesterday (at least I hope).

        For that reason, I’m not even sure that this ad is more then a head fake toward the gay community. Who is this ad aimed at? The customers they have or the customers they want? Who are the customers they want?

  3. GregorSamsa says:

    Well…I certainly see the point, but I don’t see the “gay” angle. Maybe ’cause I’m straight and have an underdeveloped “gaydar”. I have a cousin who is gay and I didn’t know it until we were both well into our 30’s. I felt sort of stupid at being almost the last to know. That said, the soldier in the commercial hugs a guy AND two women within a few seconds. I don’t see a particular message except “Welcome home; we love you.” The soldier’s sexuality is not even an issue, one way or the other. From the ad, I would not be able to make a judgement.

  4. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    I fail to see how they are gay.

    There is no romantic or sexual body language between them. The hug was brotherly not sexual or romantic. You would not hug your lover like that, but you would hug a best friend or your brother that way, especially after something traumatic.

    If a girl came home from war and the man hugged her that way, I would assume he was her brother or her GBF. I would not think they were lovers at all. Men do not hug their lovers that way, that is a platonic hug.

    If it was a man coming home from war and a girl greeted him with a hug, it might be more difficult to tell if they were lovers or not since girls tend to be more platonically affectionate, while simultaneously being sexually passive. Just as in the animal kingdom female animals tend to merely demonstrate passive/receptive behaviors as a sign of sexual interest, human females are similar. Women are not sexually assertive and will not embrace their lovers with clear cut sexual behavior. It is much more difficult to tell a female’s feeling toward someone in a 15 second commercial for this reason (more platonically expressive, less sexually expressive). We would assume a male soldier-female waiting at home were lovers, only because this is a traditional cultural narrative which is decades old (from a time when people got married for life by age 21).
    When the person in wait is a male, it is easy to tell the nature of the relationship. Open armed hug with beer in hand and no remotely sexual behavior at all = brothers, friends, hugging each other after a long separation due to severe trauma like war. Typical human behavior says males initiate sexual contact, while simultaneously keeping a lid on any emotional expression at other times. Females are the opposite (being very emotionally expressive /outgoing at all times except sexually).
    That is the kind of hug brothers or best friends give each other when something serious and life changing happened.

    The hug is not out of place – it is exactly in context. Men rarely show emotion, but war is one of the few times where such a thing is acceptable. This is precisely why they added it – so the people at home are like “wow, that is seriously real emotional trauma, because the brothers are hugging so you know its real because men arent supposed to show emotion unless it’s really serious”.

    The “its a gay relationship” narrative is simply stupid. I would argue it is homophobic if not for the fact the gays were the ones saying it.

    • octo says:

      In real life, yeah, they would be kissing. But Budweiser can’t show that to everyone or they risk alienating a huge portion of viewers. Even ones that are okay with gay marriage, etc. are sometimes grossed out by it.

      On the other hand, they stand to gain something by advertising to the more liberal population, the ones that say “Bud, that’s for hicks who drive SUVs in the mud all day after throwing the pigskin, and drink it out of a tall can with extra-wide mouth, crush it against their stomach, throw it behind the couch, and holler ‘the South will rise again!'”

      You’re ignoring the context of his relationship to the dude vis a vis the other people in the scenes.

      His primary relationship (across multiple scenes) is with the dude. Not the “sister,” not the parents, the dude. He has such a closer relationship with his brother/friend than anyone else in his family, such that he’s obviously given privilege to hug first in isolation. You only give that kind of space for significant others.

      • AnonymousAtLarge says:

        When budweiser makes a commercial about the war and soldiers, with not even one token minority in it, its safe to say they are not aiming it at upper class liberals at all. This commercial is for the red states.

        Now its possible they constructed the commercial in such a way as to promote a rumor that it was about gayness (perhaps budweiser pr reps are the ones who started the rumor)…, but its clear that the overall design of the commercial is not gay. The commercial is about some white conservative teenager who calls his brother and comes home from war, greeted by his family. End scene.

        Do you have brothers or sisters? Brothers and sisters who are close in age usually have close relationships where they communicate primarily with each other, and secondarily with parents. I have 2 sisters 1 brother. We are all a year a part , two are irish twins. Quite often communication would primarily be through siblings and then info passed secondarily to parents. Communication primarily done through parents usually involved asking for monetary resources or other favors children ask of parents. He may have a close relationship with his brother. I have (had) close relationship with my sister so I can totally relate to this commercial’s depiction of family interactions.

        I wonder if people who think this is about homosexuality even have family, or relationships with their family members.

  5. LukeyP says:

    No one seems to have mentioned that the biggest indication that this is a homosexual relationship is the fact that it was a guy he called to tell the world he was coming home from war. If he was single, he probably would have told his parents (they are at the party after all). Otherwise, he is most certainly going to tell his partner. There is a shot of his parents receiving the news on the phone, but on the left side of screen the solider is looking out an aeroplane window. The parents would have received the news from the only person that knows – his partner.

    Of course they’re not going to kiss in the ad, can you imagine the uproar? Hugging is safer and retains ambiguity.

    The best part is, this ad probably speaks in multiple ways to multiple market segments, which is an advertiser’s dream. Gays are the ones who came out to say it was aimed at them. Conservatives will probably instinctively think that this is a good old fashioned story of an American soldier returning home from war to his family (traditional family values reinforced). Anyone connected to the military can relate, and any male in general will relate to the idea of celebrating with a nice cold Bud.

    Whether the characters are gay or not is moot, but personally I think Bud definitely intended on creating enough ambiguity that it could go either way in order to target quite different market segments – this is after the repeal of DADT after all, so the thought is in people’s minds.

    Maybe I’m bias because I’m gay??? In which case the ad worked.

    • AnonymousAtLarge says:

      Yea, I agree.

      The commercial was clearly designed intentionally so that people could say it might be gay, but they could also say it was just a good old fashioned traditional american family. However you want to look at it, you can see either story.

      The commercial then has appeal to radically different population segments, which is the definition of successful advertising.

      I tend to reject the “they are gay” narrative because it’s reaching bigtime, and seemingly exploitative.

  6. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    I wonder if people seeing this as “obviously gay” have families with siblings.

    I come from a large family with kids close in age and the way the brothers communicate is realistic. WHen you have a close relationship with a brother or sister it is like your best friend but even closer, its like being twins. So calling his brother to be the one to tell the whole family that he was coming home makes sense.

    The pause and the intensity before the hug does suggest a more than platonic relationship, and I do think it may have been added in there for controversy (omg are they GAAAAY???) but otherwise the commercial is clearly a child coming home to his family.

    Remember, soldiers are teenagers. They are children. IT would be strange for a 30 year old to behave this way but not so strange for an 18 or 19 year old kid, at that age your primary support is brothers and parents.

  7. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    In past wars kids came home to their wives and potential wives, because 1) men went to war, not women and 2) people got married by 21 years old.

    Today soldiers are men and women, and they don’t come home to wives and husbands, they come home to families and girlfriends/boyfriends who they probably aren’t serious with because people don’t get married by 21 anymore.

  8. TheCoconutChef says:

    “if you substituted a woman for [the man who hugs the soldier], it would read pretty much exactly like a heterosexual relationship.”

    I’m not sure exactly why the dude in the blog didn’t pick it up or if it’s rellevant, but if this story was about a husband and his wife, the ad would not be about beer.

  9. vandal says:

    I actually did think of them as brothers when I first saw this ad. Even the hug, it’s like brotherly awkward. But then I have 2 brothers and know how close siblings can be raised. Also if you’re in the country (as they are) you tend to get closer to your siblings as the other kids are farther away and you work around them more in solitary.

    And then, well country area doesn’t seem so open to gay relations do they? So the setting throws one off. I am one of those to assume straight unless otherwise told, it’s a majority thing.

    But now I do see the gay, probably only because it was mentioned here. More importantly I notice the abscence of war too. Honestly I just don’t pay attention to beer commercials.

  10. rapscallione says:

    Just finishing up 4 years of film school, and it’s taken me until this post to realize that the research and whatnot done by Eisenstein et al. can not only not be interesting, but effective in more than a technical sense. I never thought of it from an advertising perspective until you described it perfectly with the girl and the ice cream.

    Either way, great post. You are indeed on a roll.

  11. BluegrassJack says:

    The key to advertising is to pitch a product in a way that appeals to as many different groups of people as possible, while making as few people angry as possible.

    • Francis says:

      The title explains it: “Budweiser ad is both gay and not-gay, and not about either.” What is the creator trying to do/say with the advertisement? He’s trying to get you to want to buy Budweiser. The man-man hug IS the climax, but only because there’s so much build up to that moment. It doesn’t matter if that’s a metaphorical climax, because what the creator is trying to do is appeal to gay/not gay/military/civilian/family/female/male/blue-collar/etc. people. Snag the most demographics possible; make the most money.

      To tell the truth, I didn’t see any homosexual interaction in the ad, even though I both know gay couples and read the beginning statement. The important thing to note is that they’re suggesting that Budweiser gives you ESCAPE, and a way to celebrate that escape. The “give you escape” part is only subliminal, and might not be true, but that’s what the ad suggests…

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