Grindr recently launched a series of in-app advertisements promoting Ariana Grande's third studio album, which Republic Records released last Friday.
The ads make good business sense. Grindr is a mobile app with millions of primarily gay male users, after all, and Ariana is one of many female pop stars to explicitly market herself to gay male audiences in the post-"for God and for the gays" era.
But is this synergy "genius," as one Grindr user I spoke with described it, or verging on exploitative pandering, to paraphrase another? And what does this style of advertising say about the current state of gay male identity and its capacity to be commodified and assimilated into the mainstream?
On Friday, May 20, at least three distinct pop-up ads promoting the release of Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman album began appearing on Grindr's three-by-infinity scroll of proud, smiling faces and "discreet" headless torsos.
One of the ads, spotted by Mic staff writer Mathew Rodriguez, simply features the LP's latex bunny mask cover art with a no-nonsense "DOWNLOAD NOW" call to action. Another, found by a person who goes by "@theErotomanic" on Twitter, is more text-heavy, listing the album's featured artists (Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Macy Gray, Future) before urging Grindr users to download the album. The third pop-up, which I saw firsthand, offers a tweaked version of the second ad's copy. All three ads contain a button in their bottom-right corner that, when pressed, leads the user to iTunes, where they can choose to buy the 22-year-old singer's album.
"Ariana's team came to us wanting to launch Dangerous Woman in a new way," Grindr VP of marketing Landis Smithers said in an email to Fusion. "[Grande's] team itself created the concept, and Grindr's team [fine-tuned] it to fit our users and network."
Neither Ariana Grande nor her team responded to requests for comment left with Republic Records parent company Universal Music Group.
Grande is not the first pop star to market herself on Grindr. The geolocation-based social-"networking" application—which allows its primarily, but not exclusively, gay male users to find, message, and meet up with one another IRL—has partnered with Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and Leona Lewis in the past to advertise album releases, tour announcements, and promotional contests. Grindr even teamed up with fashion label J.W. Anderson to livestream the Irish designer's fall/winter 2016 runway collection back in January. Other brands that have created pop-up and banner ads for the app include Diesel, Uber, Airbnb, Hotels.com, and the New York City-based Rejuvenation MD ("Advanced Express Facial.. Just $99!").
"We are a highly targeted, highly engaged user base, which is quite literally two million men a day with an average of 54 minutes a day online," Smithers told me. "Our audience tends to be more open to interaction, a sense of humor. And don't be afraid, gay men like to have fun and be engaged in unexpected ways."
Smithers' description of Grindr's userbase feels reductive to me—I mean, the users aren't all gay men, for one. And his characterization of gay men and their purportedly shared modalities is unnecessarily essentialist, at best. But I guess it's probably necessary, or at least advantageous, to boil an entire demographic down to a single, monolithic type when you're trying to package and sell an identity group to corporate sponsors.
Not every Grindr user I spoke with was as much of a fucking Debbie Downer as I am.
To gauge public opinion, I revived my long dormant account, uploaded a new selfie, and gave my profile a fresh makeover complete with arousing icebreakers like "How do you feel about Ariana Grande promoting her album with ads on Grindr?" and "I'm a reporter currently working on a story about Ariana Grande's Grindr ads. HMU."
After four nerve-racking hours without any responses, I finally heard my first brrrrp. One respondent, who preferred to remain anonymous, called the Ariana Grande pop-up ads "genius" because "all the gays listen to that music" anyway. Another person, who also requested anonymity, agreed that this marketing strategy is "a brilliant idea."
But many of the Grindr users I talked to felt uncomfortable about having their identity so explicitly targeted by advertisers.
"I don't think any artist genuinely cares about queer people," Lilith Kulp, a 21-year-old agender trans femme activist and artist from Rochester, N.Y., said. "It's hot to love the gays now, so they will do it and take our money. Like, they do these basic things like appealing to liberal queer politics about 'love' while not doing a single thing to empower queer communities. So, I guess I feel like if it wasn't popular to [support] cis gay men, then this wouldn't be happening."
"Not a single pop star has included gender-nonconforming people in their work or in their 'activism,'" they added. "It's like you can't market gender nonconformity. Like, could you imagine? 'Find your gender at JCPenney.'"
To her credit, Ariana Grande's been vocally supportive of her LGBTQ fans and certain issues they face for years. She has spoken out against institutionalized homophobia in the Catholic Church, called out radio hosts mid-interview for perpetuating harmful stereotypes propped up by the gender binary, and even included a non sequitur gay makeout session at the end of her "Break Free" music video. It doesn't seem like she's soullessly trend-hopping—say, pretending that a song about feeling "like a plastic bag" is some kind of pro-gay, anti-bullying anthem. These efforts feel genuine.
But the issue is bigger than Ariana Grande herself, and reflects the fraught history of gayness in advertising. Brands historically avoided directly marketing their products to gay audiences, as Americans' long-held cultural homophobia made any association with gayness a financial liability. This changed in the late '80s, with print ads like Absolut's rainbow vodka bottle popping up in The Advocate and After Dark. By the '90s, advertisers had begun including unmistakably gay characters in TV spots.
Guinness, for example, made a commercial about a sloppy ole man who'd never get his shit together if it weren't for his wife. Skip to the end though, and—surprise!—his wife is actually his
husband male domestic partner. Gay people love playing house, too! Drink Guinness.
Look past the ad's suffocatingly '90s aesthetic and the househusband's middle part, and you'll notice that the gay characters in the commercial—which apparently never aired due to backlash from anti-gay organizations—are in what appears to be a monogamous relationship. They're middle class, if not upper middle class. They're white. They're fit. They're male. They're masculine, rubber dishwashing gloves be damned. They're gay, sure, but that's about as non-normative as they get. This is the image that Guinness, by way of Ogilvy & Mather, settled upon when they opted to represent gay identity in the public sphere. It's telling who they chose to include in this effort to expand their demographic reach, and who they decided to exclude in the endeavor to increase their profits.
Writer and activist Sarah Schulman dissects the early years of gay imagery in national advertising in her 1998 book, Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America. She writes:
In the end, the vast majority of gay and lesbian people end up with no representation of their lives in the media. Instead, we are bombarded by the A-list, white, male, buff, and wealthy stereotype that becomes the image in the American mind, of the average gay person. Even more importantly, it becomes the standard by which gay people increasingly measure themselves.
Nearly 20 years later, those problems persist. Gay characters on TV are still super white, gay characters in ads are usually monogamous or family-oriented, and purportedly LGBTQ-interest magazines often fail to feature actual LGBTQ people on their covers. In an effort to continue the ongoing #GayMediaSoWhite conversation started by queer men of color on Twitter, Fusion crunched the numbers over the past five years and confirmed that straight white men do, in fact, land more covers of Out and Attitude than queer men of color do. The "A-list, white, male, buff, and wealthy stereotype" Schulman described in 1998 lives on.
[This representation] does not mean that we are full human beings whose lives can now be truthfully represented among the selection of lives that make up the American experience. What it really means is that…marketing and commodification of our experiences has now made it safe for us to be represented and have that fact reinforce the superiority of heterosexuality… [It] may not be benign to the gay person who longed for those images in the past, but in today's marketplace they mean almost nothing.
In the 18 years since Duke University Press published Schulman's book, gay representation in advertising has become increasingly prevalent. But this representation is often white, often male, and almost always family-oriented, which conveys an implicit message that "they're just like us" to an anxious heterosexual public. In other words, the representation has become greater, in terms of sheer numbers, but it hasn't become better.
Then again, what would "better" look like? Would "better" gay representation in advertising erase the intersectional spiral of homophobia, sexism, and racism that makes such representation meaningful to gay people, on an individual level, in the first place? What would "better" do? What would "better" change? Is "better" even possible? I don't have an answer to these questions, and neither do the companies cobbling these ads together. They're only concerned with two things: branding themselves as palatably progressive and profiting off of gay consumers—or at least upper-middle-class white gay male couples with disposable income—and their allies.
In creating an ad promoting her new album on Grindr, Ariana Grande—the brand, not the person—achieves similar goals. Along with aligning her image with progressive, pro-gay values, she further cements her position as a gay icon-in-training. (You can also see this process at work during a recent Good Morning America performance in which Grande's choreography incorporates elements of vogueing, a dance style created by black trans and gay New Yorkers decades ago.) Intentionally shaping herself into a form of "ready-made gay culture," to quote David M. Halperin's How to Be Gay, in order to lock down a consumer demographic for her product is a business-savvy move in an era of declining album sales. And therein lies the truth: Ariana Grande wants you to buy her new album. Plain and simple. Her pop-up ads on Grindr don't facilitate donations to an organization that provides assistance to homeless LGBTQ teens or a grassroots effort aiming to topple the grossly regressive anti-nondiscrimination legislation that North Carolina's state legislature passed in March. The ad's "DOWNLOAD NOW" button just leads to iTunes, where Grindr users can download Dangerous Woman for $12.99. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The ads are cute, but acknowledgement is not change. If we're ever going to "Be Alright," it won't be because Ariana Grande asked us to buy her album on the app we use to fuck each other.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.