1956 Ballantine Ale original vintage advertisement (Source: Brookston Beer Bulletin)
Ideas for Leaders #360

Ambiguous Ads: Hidden Messages, Hidden Risks?

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Key Concept

Companies sometimes use covert ‘cues’ and ambiguous images to advertise their products. This ‘purposeful polysemy’ enables them to target minority groups without alienating ‘mainstream’ consumers. It is not, however, a foolproof strategy. Research suggests that heterosexual men respond less positively to ‘gay window’ advertising.

Idea Summary

Social change has made advertising that appeals to a broader range of consumers more important and desirable. A company’s ‘diversity and inclusion’ agenda does not, however, always transfer easily to the domain of marketing. Mass-media campaigns aimed at every social group that might buy a product or service can be complicated and costly to produce.

Some companies and advertising agencies have turned to ‘purposeful polysemy’ in the search for a solution. From the Greek for ‘many’ and ‘sign’, polysemy refers to multiple meanings conveyed by a single message or word or phrase. It can be particularly useful in advertising when the covert target is a group that’s been stigmatized in society.

Put simply, purposeful polysemy lets you kill two (or more) birds with one stone — and market to minorities without the ‘mainstream’ noticing. It can, however, come at a price. Recent research on the effects of ‘gay window advertising’ — i.e. advertising made ‘accessible’ to gay men through ambiguous ‘cues’ — shows mixed results.

The research looks at the responses of both homosexual and heterosexual men to gay window and mainstream versions of real print ads for four product categories: car tyres; alcohol; eau de toilette; skin care. (The former two were deemed congruent with male stereotypes; the latter two incongruent.)

The gay window and mainstream versions of the ads differed in terms of the absence or presence of ‘cues’. Thus, the mainstream ad for Nivea for Men included a side shot of a woman’s face, and the gay window ad for Bridgestone tyres replaced a female companion with a male.

The two groups taking part in the study were comparable in terms of age, income and education, and both were unaware of the covert targeting. They had, though, very different reactions. Gay men responded more positively and reacted more emotionally to the gay window ads than the mainstream versions in which they were not the primary target audience. The reverse was true of heterosexual men.

The results point to the importance of images that connect with a consumer’s ‘sense of self’ and sexual identity in advertising. (Significantly, survey scores for liberal attitudes towards homosexual men were very high for the group of straight men who took part in the study.)

The negative effects of the gay window ads on the non-target group could also be explained by the fact that mainstream consumers have been conditioned to expect cues associated with mainstream culture. That hypothesis, however, has yet to be tested fully in research.

The study suggests that purposeful polysemy is not always the ‘win-win’ strategy hoped for. Further, it underlines the importance of individual differences within target groups and product categories. The researchers also found that gay men who are open about their sexuality can be targeted using gay ads when the product category is in line with male stereotypes, and with mainstream ads when the product category is incongruent with male stereotypes.

Business Application

The key implication of the research is that advertisers should conduct careful pre-testing of campaigns featuring covert messages — if they hope to target more than one group equally.

Purposeful polysemy might prove highly effective where the subculture and main culture converge. In a patriarchal society, for example, it might be possible to appeal to both mainstream consumers and, say, a religious minority in a single ad. In some circumstances, however, success with one group could be at the expense of another.

There’s another caveat to bear in mind. The researchers refer to earlier work suggesting that openly gay consumers may resent implicit cues on the grounds that they play by society’s restrictive rules. As tolerance of minorities grows and advertising literacy improves, we could see a backlash against covert targeting. Companies and advertising agencies will, as ever, need to remain sensitive to social change — and the changing perspectives of consumers.

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Idea conceived

  • December 2011

Idea posted

  • April 2014

DOI number



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