Some months ago the Ad Report Card devoted not one but two installments to commercials that turned on references (oblique or otherwise) to homosexuality. Often the reference served as a punch line of one sort or another, and in some cases I was critical of the way in which this or that advertiser used gayness as a joke. Responses were many and spirited. Some suggested I was being ridiculous, seeing gay themes where there were none. Others, some claiming to have inside knowledge of the ad business, argued I was naïve, overlooking the benign influence of gays who work in "ad creative." I have no way of checking the latter claim, but both critiques came to mind when a couple of people e-mailed me recently about a Minute Maid orange juice spot featuring Popeye and Bluto. The ad is part of a series, the theme of which is that drinking Minute Maid makes you gay.
Now, some observers have suggested that, in addition to promoting the happy-making power of Minute Maid, the Popeye spot might just be an example of "gay vague," along with another commercial that I haven't seen, which is airing in Europe—read this for more. You can see the spots in the U.S. campaign below: the Popeye one, another featuring Bobby Knight, a third about a "helpful hubby," and a fourth centered on a suspiciously cheerful lunch lady. My main focus is the Popeye spot.
Popeye The ad: Here they are, two of the most famous rivals in cartoondom, playing happily together on a swing and then a seesaw. Popeye good-naturedly pats sand over Bluto on the beach; sappy pal music plays. The pair gets matching "Buddies for Life" tattoos. What's going on? An announcer says cheerfully: "Somebody had their Minute Maid this morning. It takes a minute, but the feeling"—the unbridled joy and affection we're seeing here—"lasts all day." Popeye and Bluto pedal along on a tandem bike. Olive Oyl waves ("Oh boys!" she calls), but they ride straight past, blithely ignoring the object of their traditional erotic rivalry.
Coach Hmmm. Perhaps it's ridiculous of me to ask, but what exactly is it that's preventing these Minute-Maid-drunk boys from including Olive in their fun? On the other hand, what is it that makes it inevitable that almost any prominent male pair is inevitably subject to some kind of what-if-they-were-gay speculation—good-natured, homophobic, or somewhere in between? (Perhaps you've heard spurious gossip about the relationship between Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Or read my Slate colleague David Plotz's exploration of the fan fiction subgenre devoted to the imagined couplings of Kirk and Spock, among others. Or recall a New Yorker cartoon that one of my correspondents remembers, featuring none other than Popeye and Bluto holding hands, having finally figured out "where all that anger was coming from.")
Bed What about the other Minute Maid spots? You could say that they all play it straight. Hothead basketball coach Bobby Knight, having had his Minute Maid, coddles and dotes on his players, bursting into the post-game locker room to ask "Who wants a treat?" A spot featuring a surprisingly helpful husband has him forsaking football to bustle around neatening things up, heading off to "market," and setting his iron for chiffon. A chipper lunch lady minces through a school cafeteria asking, "Who wants tiramisu?"
School Anyway, subtext or no subtext, this is a pretty good campaign. All the spots, but especially the Popeye one, are attention-getting and make a clear case for the alleged powers of a morning glass of Minute Maid. The helpful hubby installment is the weakest, but the Bobby Knight one is hilarious. Mushing together grades for all four into one composite score, I'd give them a solid B. When I watch these ads, I feel … happy.