Spare Any Change?

PFOX's Poorly Designed Sexual Conversion Ads

by Will Doig
Published on October 31, 2002, 12:00am | Comments


     Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays wants you to go straight, and they've enlisted a hot guy to convince you.

     He looks like he's probably about thirty, healthy, happy, sweet and extremely well-adjusted. Wholesome? You bet. Steady? As a rock. Cute? In a weird, Land's End catalog sort of way.

     But because of an ill-conceived ad campaign, his message is missing potential converts. The posters were put on display a month ago at various points in the Metro system. The gist is that sexual orientation can be changed with some quality Jesus-based therapy.

     There's plenty about the PFOX ads -- and PFOX in general -- that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but using a cute guy to make gay men want women is like shooing away mice with a big wheel of brie. If PFOX really thinks that homosexuals are just large sex glands wrapped in erectile tissue, you'd assume they'd avoid any image that could possibly agitate such a volatile sense of depravity. PFOX did not return calls for comment, so we can only speculate on the theory behind their campaign.

     From afar, the ads look more like they're hocking mutual funds than heterosexuality. "Chris " is pictured under the phrase "I Chose To Change " and looking like he's recently been varnished. But nothing in the ad suggests a gay theme until you hit the fine print, which is long and requires you to stop walking.

     In Metro stations, people tend to be doing one of two things: walking to and from the platform, or standing on it waiting for the train. The latter is obviously considered the more desirable spot to advertise at. But because the PFOX ads take so long to get to the point -- that if you're gay, this ad's for you -- even those people on the platform with time to kill may lose interest before finding out what Chris is choosing to change. For all you can tell from the headline and picture, he could be switching banks or aftershaves.

     In addition, all of the ads except one are located in mostly low-income, African-American neighborhoods. Chris looks white and groomed for middle-management status at some big deal corporation. Socio-economically, the ads are missing their audience. PFOX would almost certainly rather be seen in heavy-flow L'Enfant Plaza, but because their ads are a "public service " -- meaning Metro picks up the tab -- they get the low-wattage real estate.

     It's the "public service " aspect that's been ruffling feathers. Why is Metro giving PFOX free ads?

     For the same reason the ACLU ends up defending the Ku Klux Klan's right to march through downtown Pittsburgh. When gay activists sued Metro in 1979 for the right to post pro-gay ads on buses, they effectively ensured that PFOX would have the right to post anti-gay ads in the same system over two decades later. And because Metro is a municipal entity, they get less leeway to pick and choose who they'll be friends with.

     In fact, mass transit systems often become the unlikely arenas in which controversy seethes. In 1994, the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts sued the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority for censoring condom ads on the subway. In appeals court, the MBTA was found guilty of violating the Constitution. That same year, an organization called the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights posted ads on D.C. Metro buses questioning the effectiveness of condoms. In response, Whitman-Walker Clinic implemented its own pro-condom ad campaign on the Metro. The ads, which featured pictures of colorful condoms, each identified by a different slang name, became overnight front-page news.

     What's even more remarkable is that this was less than ten years ago -- not exactly ancient history. Advertising campaigns that deal with sex issues remain a controversial endeavor. Even today, TV networks rarely run condom ads, even late at night. The contentious nature of ad campaigns that deal with sex and sexuality almost guarantees that those campaigns will garner publicity, and some campaigns are designed to do just that.

     "The Whitman-Walker condom campaign [in 1994] wasn't designed necessarily to create controversy, but certainly any media attention when it comes to HIV prevention, whether it's controversial or not, is a good thing, " says Michael Cover, Director of Communications for Whitman-Walker Clinic.

     That's where PFOX reaps its benefits. Their Metro ads have spurred newspaper editorials. They're posted on websites. You're reading about them right now. PFOX has achieved an incredible level of visibility with poorly placed ads that they didn't even pay to display, mainly thanks to the gay press.

     "They're simply out there to earn free media. That's been their strategy from the beginning, " says Bob Witeck, CEO of D.C.-based marketing firm Witeck-Combs Communications. "Every time they participate in outreach, they stir up controversy. And controversy is their friend. "

     But aside from the ideology they convey, the PFOX advertisements are fairly milquetoast in content. They even seem defensive and timid, suggesting that it's ex-gays who are the innocent victims of discrimination. "It may not be a decision you want to make, but you should know that thousands of us already have. Please respect our choice, " reads the text.

     Witeck believes the warm and fuzzy approach, as opposed to the militant one, helps PFOX advocates seem normal and well adjusted. He also believes that it's necessary. The virtual nonexistence of good scientific evidence of successful sexual reorientation forces PFOX to rely on personal testimonials.

      "If it's a personal testimonial, it's problematic because the person is testifying to their own experience, " says Witeck. "Some establishments won't run their ads for that very reason, because they can't back up their claims. "

     The upshot is an ad campaign that's bland in content, not strategically located, can't support its validity with any sort of scientific data, and yet, has achieved an extremely high-profile. On second thought, maybe the PFOX marketers know what their doing after all.