With its phone service introduced to the U.S., over the summer, this ad from MTV parodies 1950s-era instructional films and shows how not
to react when someone gives you a phone -- two men hug and one grabs the other's rear, then a shrill buzzer sounds and a red "No!" appears on screen.
Simultaneously in the UK, Virgin Mobile also began airing an ad in which Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean is arrested by a Southern U.S. sheriff and thrown into prison. As the inmates shower together, an enormous prisoner tells Jean to pick up a bar of soap on the floor -- a reference to prison rape.
When it was just a few weeks old, that ad had registered a few negative comments to the ITC -- something a Virgin Mobile spokesman jokingly refers to as "poor performance." The spot, from Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, London, may come to the U.S. early next year.
Other ad references to predatory gay men and male rape have already made appearances this year in the U.S. for 7Up, Saturn and IKEA.
The ad is a similar approach to a more successful butt grab effort from MTV
Virgin spokesman Steven Day dismisses the soap joke as just a "nominal gay reference" and isn't worried about gay backlash. "We've used a fair amount of overt gay imagery. We're generally well received in the gay community and we don't treat minorities as minorities." He says the ad was put through focus groups that included gay people "to make sure the sensitivities were okay. And we had some gay people working on it too."
Day explains, "A lot of our ads are edgy and follow in the tradition of Virgin. The Virgin brand is about humor. But our aim is not to shock, it is to get a smile."
Virgin Mobile also recently carried a billboard ad in the UK featuring two soldiers holding hands, about the time England began allowing openly gay soldiers to serve.
"We would argue that the debate about homosexuality (in advertising) has moved on," says Day at Virgin Mobile. In fact, he adds, "To not allow a homosexual reference for humor is giving it special preference. We think people are grown enough to see it as a joke and not homophobic or racist,"
As the three Virgin Mobile ads indicate, the Virgin Group brand empire has a long history of leveraging gay themes in ads as well as seeking the gay market. Directed by brash British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic Airways was the first airline to target gays in the U.S. in 1994, and Virgin Cola brought the first same-sex kiss commercial to America in 1998.