As Edith Massey once said, “the world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life,” and I found renewed sympathy for the straights this Thanksgiving after gorging myself on some weird old ads for Butterball that for some reason associate turkey-preparation with heterosexual inadequacy.
For years, I’ve held a deep appreciation for a series of old 1970s-era ads in which ghost-pilgrims appear in modern kitchens to marvel at the moistness of Butterball turkeys. The entire premise of the commercials is bananas, from the disembodied chorus that heralds the ghosts’ arrival to their old-timey dialogue peppered incessantly with the word “juicy.”
But the aspect that I love most is how the pilgrim characters, an apparent husband and wife, have a bickering sniping relationship, as though either one is just one dry drumstick away from snapping and slugging the other square in the face—a dynamic replicated in countless commercials of the time, and one curiously absent from early marketing to queers.
To be fair, I have no idea what heterosexual relationships are really like. I assume they’re something like this scene from the soap opera Passions, in which a couple seduces each other by eating a lobster as disgustingly as possible. But I’m obsessed with how, for decades, commercials have been trying to convince the straights that their relationships are doomed to miserable failure unless they buy the right coffee, cook the right chow mein, or buy each other plane tickets to Hawaii.
So do old ads for same-sex couples prey on the same insecurities? It’s hard to say, since Folgers wasn’t exactly pursuing queer consumers in the 1970s. But after spending hours in a YouTube spiral of old advertisements, I did manage to dig up a handful of queerish ones from the '90s, when big brands finally realized that gay men are sometimes rich.
There was a commercial for Guinness (that never aired), another for Volkwagen that had a queer energy (it aired during Ellen’s coming-out episode, so they knew what they were doing), and one for Ikea featuring a couple that has the nerve to treat each other as equals.
By comparison, these early gay ads seem quite tender. There’s no “my husband, what an idiot” energy, or “leave your wife if she doesn’t serve better coffee.” I don’t know why the difference is so stark—if I had to guess, it might be that advertisers didn’t know how to prey on marital anxieties when both parties are members of the patriarchy—but oh boy, was Edith Massey ever right.