The Old Navy gay pride tees: It’s not just publicity.

I still remember the argument. I stood in the front entrance of my mother’s house, jacket still on, barely settled when my stepfather started in on me. We weren’t nearly as close then–he was older, grumpy and closed-minded; I was young, brash and closed-minded. Two Virgos. What a surprise.

The accusation had to do with my profession of choice. Two years out of college, evidently working my way up the corporate ladder wasn’t noble enough. Not like teaching. Not like clearing brush and chopping wood and working the land and eating fish you caught. Not like what he did. I think his line was “How do you sleep at night?”

“I sleep fine,” I groused.

There was the assumption that if I wrote commercials for a living, I could not possibly be living my values. Or more accurately, I could not possibly have any values.

(You know, ad people. We all just spend our days with our Gucci shoes up on mahogany conference room tables, wondering how to make people feel bad about themselves so they can buy things they don’t need. Things that destroy the rain forest and kill baby seals. All at once. If we’re lucky. )

It wasn’t for another few years that he sat me down, pressed his thick hands firmly on my shoulders, and with teary eyes, whispered “I understand now. I’m sorry.”

That was the week I won an award for a commercial I wrote. It was the first to depict a lesbian couple openly proclaiming their relationship.

(And yes, that’s Julie Bowen in the ad. And yes, she’s as cool as you think she is.)

Clutching the award, I remember floating through the crowd at the GLAAD Awards, while cast members and producers of Spin City and Mad About You and Ellen thanked me. It was wholly surreal. When they announced our name as the winners, in a slightly unorthodox move, our account director bounded to the stage to make the acceptance speech instead of me and my creative partner. It was the right thing to do. It may have been the highlight of my career at the time, but as an openly gay man, I got the distinct feeling that addressing that crowd was the highlight of his life.

I wondered how often he had to justify to his family and friends that he, too, could live his values through his profession.

At that awards dinner, I realized just how much one 15-second ad could mean to people. One 15-second ad that only ran on one network after 10:00 at night. Because in that ballroom, they knew. They knew that it wasn’t just about advertising.

Now funny enough, a lot of  people not in advertising would conclude the opposite: That Mistic Beverages just wanted publicity.

That’s some of the criticism I’m hearing now about the Old Navy Gay Pride tees that launched in 26 stores this week.

And it’s making me crazy.

Let’s for one moment discount the asshats who are saying bigotted or stupid things. Let’s ignore the commenter who thinks that same-sex families are somehow furthering a political agenda by putting their kid in a t-shirt that declares he loves his two mommies. Or the person who said that “tolerance should be taught at home and not marketed.” (Because uh…okay. That makes no sense.) There are always going to be intolerant people who, under the guise of religious dogma, ignorance, or personal discomfort, don’t support love, dignity and the rights of same-sex couples. I’m never going to change their minds.

There are also those who don’t feel comfortable with cause-related shirts on children in general or imposing their political values on their children. And I get that. Although I would argue that my lesbian friends don’t see their family as a cause. And that an I love my mommies onesie is no more political than an I love my mommy and daddy onesie. (Although for some reason, the latter makes me want to gag a little bit more.)

Instead, I’ve been mostly surprised and annoyed by those who support the notion of gay pride, but are still giving Old Navy a hard time.

I see statements like “they just want to sell t-shirts” or “it’s just a marketing hoax because it’s only in 26 stores” (thanks for that link Jenna though it’s now down) and I want to scream.

Let me say as someone in marketing: No. Old Navy doesn’t just want to sell t-shirts.

If they did, they would stick with the vintage Disney tees. They’d sell tees with the Red Sox logo. They would sell tees with I SUPPORT AFRICA or I LOVE RECYCLING which I guarantee are “political agendas” that are more acceptable to more of America than LOVE PROUDLY/GAY PRIDE 2011.

Or you want a real marketing coup? Try vintage Mickey in a Red Sox cap saying I LOVE RECYCLING. Guaranteed best-seller.

I can tell you that when a huge company like The Gap Corporation makes a move like this, it is not without a lot of talking and thinking and hand-wringing and calls to shareholders. Our own clients faced plenty of internal pressure to pull the lesbian ad at one point. They even lost some distributors in…shall we say, less progressive states? They stood their ground and kept the ad on air. Not because “it will sell products.” They do it because our clients had cajones of steel. They do it because it’s in their corporate DNA.

Let’s just say, as popular as pride shirts get, I’m eagerly awaiting the day that Wal-Mart sells them.

Still waiting.

Are the Old Navy tees a 100% altruistic move? Of course not. 10% of profits are going to the It Gets Better project which is awesome, and I bet it could be more. No doubt Old Navy could put them in 28 stores or 37 stores or 142 stores instead. While we’re at it, I’m sure Old Navy could also have better operations. They could open all fair trade factories, and reward their sales clerks Ben and Jerry’s style, and switch to solar power and do a hundred other things that would check off every corporate do-gooding box that would make me their #1 fan. But for now, on this one single issue, what I see is a huge company with a lot to lose over it, taking a stand anyway. A big stand.

And that is a very big start.

I am really hoping they are selling it in Brooklyn. My girls have always loved rainbows.

Update: The list of retailers is on the Old Navy Facebook page under the events tab. The Chelsea store tells me they should arrive by next Weds.


55 thoughts on “The Old Navy gay pride tees: It’s not just publicity.”

  1. Because I was curious, I tried to buy a gay pride shirt online–I got the response “item not found. Did you mean “gray”? Gray pride — a group I'm a member of every time my roots grow out–just isn't the same thing. Your post hits many nails squarely: we would all like to believe in “pure” altruism but that ain't happening in Big Biz anytime soon. So it seems to me that no, maybe this roll-out isn't perfect, but it is a sign that maybe, in fact, things DO get better.

  2. Bravo Liz. I can just imagine the 10,000 meetings and phone calls and emails that must have occurred to get these shirts created by such a big company.

    Here's hoping they put them for sale online—-that is when I think they'll be able to really make an impact and send an even bigger message. But, I'll take every little baby step too.

  3. If you see them in Brooklyn, could you grab me a couole too? My kids fave color just happens to be “rainbow.” nicely done, Old Navy. And Liz, this post is right on.

  4. I don't think that it's a marketing ploy for Old Navy, but I also don't think that having the shirt in like 3 percent of your stores is as ballsy as having a corporate policy of “every store. This is what we believe in. Love isn't controversial.”

    Sure, what Old Navy is doing is great. But it's shocking to see that having pretty tame t-shirts (they don't say Sodomy for Everyone! after all) is so “out there” that it has to be confined to the, shall we say, latte-drinking states.

    To me the bigger issue is how depressing it is that it's 2011 and we're still arguing over homosexuality and gay marriage.

  5. excellent excellent excellent – when i moved to Boston after college in the late 80's one of my roommates, Kevin, came out of the closet. It was an eye opener for me to watch him try to navigate his 'new' life in a way that he could embrace while still trying to make sure that all of his nongay friends and family approved. There were so many who didn't.
    4 of us lived in that apt and the first time a man emerged from Kevin's room after a night out was a 'holy shit he's not kidding' moment, but then it became no more interesting than when a strange man emerged from any other room. Instead it became one more opportunity for the 4 of us to gather over coffee, nursing hangovers and gossiping and giggling over the previous night's antics all the while wondering if any of our dates would call or if they would disappear into that big black hole that was dating.

    Kevin was terrified to tell his parents that he was gay and his father remained angry and in denial for years, but when Kevin got sick from Aids they brought him home and cared for him and loved him until he died. Back in the day there was such a lack of understanding about this disease and such an overwhelming fear of it that it only served to heighten the homophobic response so many people had to gays. Kevin paid dearly for that ignorance.

    I hope that Old Navy stands firm in this campaign and broadens the scope of its reach. They, and any other company who makes a potentially controversial or unpopular social stand, should be admired for those efforts instead of ridiculed or questioned.

  6. Fabulous. As parents we naturally “impose” our own values and politics on our children. If you take your kids to church or comment on any current events you are passing on your values. Wouldn't it be nice if we could wipe out yet another social stigma in one generation? I doubt the O.N. in our neck of suburbia will be one of the lucky 26, but I'd put my kiddo in one of those shirts in a heartbeat.

  7. I think that it's great what they're doing and don't think that it's a marketing ploy.
    What I don't like that they're in so few stores and not available online. Why not make them widely available to everyone?

  8. I love what they are doing. I also have to admit that I am a little irritated that I can't get them where I live or online. My brother is openly gay and has bee for 20+ years and I want these shirts for my kids and myself. My brother's partner in Chicago is trying to get them for me.

    I remember that commercial. It was a big deal in our family. Thank you.

  9. Thank you Dalai Mama. I can't believe you remember the spot.

    I also wish they were available online.

    Who knows, after this, maybe they will be.

  10. Ok, I love this post and am happy people are commenting. As a fellow marketer, parent, consumer and lover of rainbows one thing bothers me about this—so what if it's a marketing ploy? I think we all know that in this still close-minded society we live in, gay rarely wins. So I don't think in the grand scheme it would be that savvy a marketing ploy, but again, why does it matter if it is?

    Businesses (large and small) that are running campaigns, selling/making widgets purely for altruism are few and far between. Why can't we just be happy that in this instance something that someone is doing could yield a positive return for someone other than the person at the helm?

    I am simply exhausted by the over-analyzing of everything we do as parents and professionals. Can we for once just take a moment to enjoy a rainbow, agendas, subtext and right and wrong aside?

  11. Great insight into a little piece of the ad world. Thanks for that! I'm with you, of course. They made them to sell, but also to support. And that's a-okay.

  12. I, too, am OVER THE MOON happy that Old Navy has started selling the pride shirts. Albiet in a small selection of stores, but still, I'm glad they're doing it.

    I am someone who has asked that Old Navy sell the shirts in more than just a fraction of their stores and online, but I haven't lambasted them or criticized them for their limited release of the shirts. I think it's ok to ask for more availability of the shirts without sounding like we're criticizing.

    Brava to you and your achievements. I'm with you – it's not just a publicity stunt: it's a HUGE step forward. I'd like to see them offered online as well as in their selected stores so that people like me in conservative communities can also show our pride.

  13. This is fantastic. It's great hearing about your perspective from the ad world side of things (I've always been a little fascinated with advertising). You gave readers a lot to chew on in this post.

  14. Well said as always!

    I started out in advertising and used to yell at my dad for muting the ads on TV because it was what I did for a living. It's all very complicated, but that's the point you made so well — people and companies are complex characters with myriad motivations for every move — and some of them are actually valid and pure.

  15. I just wish with all the publicity these shirts are getting I could buy one or two. I live in Nashville. A big city but I'm willing to bet the shirts won't be sold here. I've seen them all over the internet but nowhere that I can buy them. I applaud what they're doing but I wish I could do more than morally support it.

  16. [standing ovation. again.]

    It's about love and respect and human rights. And courage and commitment. It's a positive message that hurts no one, helps many, and provokes thought.

    The fact that it comes from a for-profit business has no bearing on the validity of those points; if anything, it underscores the leap that Old Navy has taken.

  17. i hope they're selling it on sixth ave in chelsea, because i'm walking over there at lunchtime.

  18. People always assume the worst of a company, don't they?

    Great post, Liz. Marketing ploy or not, they took a risk, and it's a great thing.

  19. I am in love with this post. Great topic. Great thought. They SHOULD sell them in every store. Or online. Would love to have one. I love the American Apparel ones (for adults), although that store's ads are bordering on pornographic. Laura@

  20. I kinda like the mickey mouse with the red sox hat idea.

    but have him holding hands with another mickey mouse.

    just make sure that other mickey mouse isn't wearing a yankees hat, because THAT would go too far.

  21. Amazing post.

    I just had to comment because I watched that commercial and had a flashback of how much I LOVED Mystics.

  22. I'm in total agreement. I love that Old Navy is doing this, I think its a huge move for a corporation to make a stand like this and I can't wait to go to the store this weekend and pick some up for my family. I only wish they also sold them online for people who aren't close enough to a store. (I'm really not certain why they don't).

  23. Agree with every single word you said, Liz. From my advertising/marketing background to political agendas to yay for companies taking a stand. Rock on sister.

  24. Well bravo, here here and a big, wet, lesbian snog (no, I'm not a lesbian, but it seemed fitting) – this was brilliant.

    First because I LURVE reading blogs from moms who didn't lost their fabulousness in the delivery room with the afterbirth.

    Second, because I bloody HATE it when a company finally does something right and STILL they get blasted for it. F*cked if you do, etc…

    Third, I'm also currently in advertising and can attest to the fact that killing baby seals is far from the top of my “to do” list at work.

    I'm busy with all the kitten killing, after all…

    Loved this.

    Now stalking, webby style.

  25. Personally, I figured it was a start. Anytime something is new, it tends to hit major stores first. It it sells, they make it more available.

    I love that their doing this. I'm hoping that a store in Denver is selling them actually. I know two little girls who very much want their aunties to see them in those shirts.

  26. Motives can't be pushed aside altogether, but they shouldn't be weighed with a thumb pressing down on the scale.

    With your help …

    * I am wearing cargo pants (and have a place for my cell phone on my leg, where it is more comfortable).

    * I have slowly come to accept that my favorite musicians aren't “selling out” when they license their songs as much as they are finding a new and more broad audience.

    * And above all, I have come to understand that advertizing can be a force of unbelievable good in the world, even when there is money to be made.

  27. This means a lot to me. I love my little rainbow family and to see a company show us a little bit of love is rare and cheesily heartwarming. Also Liz, you said it perfectly when you said “I love my mommies” is no more political than “I love my mom” GAWD I wish I had thought of that!

  28. Thank you so so much for all the thoughtful comments. (I know, easy to say when we all agree.)

    I am always so appreciative when you all share your hearts and minds here. Especially on something so personal for so many of you.

  29. totally getting those shirts for Tori. Wish Old Navy still did the plus size thing in their stores. 😀

  30. So powerful. And so well-written. I just read most of this aloud to my husband because it's just. so. good. (side note: first I read him your bio and we both laughed out loud).

    As a recovering advertising gal myself, I'm giving you a standing ovation on your TV spot, while cheering “Brava! Brava!” I always wished I could be involved in the type of needle-moving, ground-breaking (I'm sure I've got another trite phrase up my sleeve)eye-opening work that you did.

    Thanks for this great post.

  31. Thanks for another great post! I had a whole response typed, then I read it and even I couldn't understand it – so I guess your post has got me speechless.

  32. Wonderful post! I generally have a hard time thinking of advertisers as potentially good people, though I've been coming around slowly. This was great. Thanks.

  33. Liz, this is a great post.

    As you learned with the GLAAD award, we in the LGBT community are so used to being invisible (at best) or getting negative or even violent reactions (at worst), that positive, visible, public presence in a marketing campaign sometimes moves us to tears. Which seems silly when you reduce it to “this is just Old Navy trying to sell t-shirts” but NOT AT ALL silly when you realize that they went through a huge corporate process and discussion around whether to “come out” as explicit supporters of LGBT people.

    Those conversations? I have them in my head every time I have to decide whether or not to come out. Do I make reference to my wife? Do I use a gendered reference or her name in a conversation? How will the people around me react? Am I in a safe location? What are the career or professional implications of coming out *here*? (As I think you know, I feel a strong personal & social responsibility to be out. But I still have those conversations in my head all the time.)

    Knowing that, often, those conversations are happening with people like you and most of your commenters, make that calculus less scary.


  34. Great post! I am sure Gap Corp. spent a gazillion hours talking about the t-shirt, knowing full well its the right thing and its their stance but at the same time they sadly are beholden to shareholders.

    I worked for a financial services company and I remember distinctly at a town hall the chairman (a gruff, rough around the edges guy from the bronx) why he had chosen to add allow that partners to have that same benefits that married couple did even though he knew some shareholders and customers would disagree. His response “its the right thing to do.” Thats it. And knowing him, he did not sit there and analyze the situation.

    And I agree with Marinka, what makes me crazy is how can we still be talking about this issue in 2011.

  35. Prescott, Walmart is the perfect reference. They are the largest retailer in this country and their influence is unprecedented.

    I also think there's a difference between selling a book and writing and publishing it yourself, which is more comparable to what Old Navy is doing.

    If not Walmart, I could have referenced Domino's Pizza or Chick Fil-A instead. But they don't sell clothing.

  36. For the Record:
    I called the shirts political b/c where I live it IS an political issue. I know it SHOULD NOT be, but there is a large gap between should and is, as often is the case. Nor did I ever say that Old Navy shouldn't sell these shirts.

    As for why I don't want them for my own children: I was raised by people who worked tirelessly for civil rights yet none of us knew it because my siblings were so little. I was raised by people who taught us that you teach your kids how to love a person, regardless of who they are, who always carried food or gift cards to give to the homeless and taught us you don't go around talking about it, but by inviting others to DO IT WITH YOU. And I carry on that tradition with my children. I teach them by setting an example, having important conversations and letting them learn what I want them to know without having to face the ugliness while they are so little. I was simply explaining my decision not to have my kids wear those shirts, not making a judgment on yours. If that makes me an asshat, well then, so be it.

  37. B, I'm not sure why you think any of this is directed at you. I don't know you, and am not familiar with your points of view.

  38. Hi there, I think this is a great post. I wonder if there might be something missing from the debate here though – for me, the difficulty with something like this is not that Old Navy is doing this “just to sell shirts,” but rather that I fear we are all coming to believe that political beliefs are kind of like shirts. As if, by choosing a t-shirt, we have done everything we need to do to choose and express a political view or moral value. It's true that our choices as consumers are important, and as many comments suggest, even our choice of t-shirt can be important sometimes, but that's not the end of the story. And I worry that Old Navy (and the rest of our consumerist society) would be happiest for everyone to see themselves JUST as consumers choosing t-shirts, who otherwise neatly fit into the system. (Buying a t-shirt might help shift public discourse, but there is still a lot of work to do towards actually achieving social change). Just a few thoughts for the mix. Thanks again for the great writing as usual. Patricia from Canada.

  39. I called the shirts political over at motherhood uncensored. You called those of us that used that term asshats, so that is where I'm coming from.

  40. B, she was referring in her post to a comment written elsewhere. There were no comments on her post before she actually wrote the post.

    Also, I called bigots asshats. Your opinion seems thoughtful and well-reasoned, even if I don't agree.

    I appreciate you weighing in.

  41. Thanks Patricia, that's a great perspective. It's the same reason I'm not a fan of yellow ribbon stickers for the car, and why I get uncomfortable with say, breast cancer charities raising money for “awareness.” Who's not aware of breast cancer?

    That said, in the case of diversity and tolerance, I do think simply putting it out in the open and making it less shameful is a huge step.

    I'm glad a big marketer is making a stand (and a donation to a great organization). I'm glad the Chelsea boys out my office door can walk into a major retailer and come out with a shirt to wear to the Pride Parade. Or maybe one for their own kids. And I'm especially glad that it's got conversations like these going.

  42. OMG, I'm so embarrassed! I totally misread. That will teach me to get on my high horse when nursing a house full of sick kids. It turns out I AM an asshat for completely different reasons….

  43. B, not at all!

    I really understand that not everyone is comfortable putting their beliefs on their kids' shirts. I'm lucky we live in New York where they're not going to get beat up for it, you know? It would be worse if they wore a Red Sox shirt.

  44. Love it! Nobody speaks about the complicated dynamics between brand, marketing and social causes and values in a voice as authentic and, well, fucking brilliant and to the point as you, Liz.

    Though a little different than working at a big brand, I've worked at big media companies–even ones in the business of doing good (think muppets)–and know how hard it is to push through a message about gay pride. Even when everyone internally is on board.

    At the end of the day, a tshirt like this shouldn't be the topic of blog posts and debates. It should be a given. Just like it's a given that you'll find Rachael and Rachel at the personalized name plate booth. Okay, lame example (and where am I? Six Flags?!) which I should take more seriously since Stacie was *never* an option. But, anyway, I'll take anything–even something that isn't 100% altruistic or maybe even has a marketing “ploy” behind it–that starts us on the road to normalizing something that should be–that IS–normal.

  45. Thanks for this post. I only first saw these shirts the other days and I admit that my first thoughts about Old Navy’s motives were skeptical. I’m so glad to get a different perspective – one that happens to make a lot of sense and impact.

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