Did Lesbian Content Really Drive General Mills & REMAX to Pull Ads?

Earlier this week, the Florida Family Association announced that General Mills and realty company RE/MAX had caved to their demands that both companies pull advertising from the ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars because of its lesbian content, and the fear that it might be somehow permanently damaging to young impressionable viewers.

A reminder of the FFA’s statement:

“Unlike any other show on unrestricted advertiser-supported television networks, the majority of the primary cast on ‘Pretty Little Liars’ are lesbians. The series has grown from one lesbian lead character to three. The majority of the viewers of ‘Pretty Little Liars’ lesbian show are children. More than half or 1.3 million of the 2.5 million female viewers are children — girls between the ages of 12 and 18 according to cable reports on Deadline.com. This report does not include girls younger than 12, but certainly they are also watching by the tens of thousands. ABC using salacious and glamorizing scenes portraying young, pretty women as lesbians sends the wrong message to these young girls, a message that reinforces and legitimizes this homosexual lifestyle in a manner that could affect these young girls’ sexual identity for a lifetime.”

On their website,  the FFA publish communications from both General Mills Director of Consumer Services Jeff Hagen and RE/MAX CEO Margaret Kelly, claiming that both these companies have “said NO to Pretty Little Liars lesbian content.” Specifically, they state that “Most companies that stop advertising during the programs monitored by Florida Family Association do not send a written acknowledgement of their decision.  However, Florida Family Association tries to inform supporters of the advertisers that do send an acknowledgement.”

Given that, based on their “about” page, the Florida Family Association seems to be mostly one person, its founder and executive director David Caton (although THOUSANDS OF SUPPORTERS are alluded to, literally in all caps), it seems unlikely that all that many companies have stopped advertising because of the FFA’s efforts. Actually, it seems kind of improbable that General Mills and RE/MAX did, either — they’re major corporations with nationwide presence, and one apparently minor organization in Florida seems unlikely to have much pull with them. Is the FFA’s story true? Did they manage to shift two huge corporations away from targeting preteens and high school students who like shiny hair and expensive clothes?

Upon contacting Jeff Hagen, he was quick to point out that he isn’t the company’s official spokesperson. But he claims that contrary to the FFA’s story, General Mills already didn’t advertise on Pretty Little Liars – and says that the media company’s decision in that matter was for advertising and audience members, not because of “any individual characters.” He’s confirmed that he did in fact email David Caton — as a refresher, here’s what FFA says that Jeff Hagen wrote:


Autostraddle reader Katie has also contacted Hagen, and while he informed me that the company’s decision not to advertise it was unrelated to the content of the show, Katie says he told her that “GM doesnt want to advertise on anything sexual or not family oriented,” although Hagen also doesn’t think it has anything to do with the FFA’s allegation of “promoting a gay agenda.” When questioned, a PR spokesperson said:

We make advertising decisions based on the audience demographic reach of a program and relevance for our brands, and we make changes to our ad buys all of the time. That should not be misinterpreted. The decision is entirely based on the relevance of the show’s audience for our brands, not because of the sexual orientation of individual characters.

Hagen reiterated that he was not GM’s spokesperson, and officially declined to comment on whether or not he felt the FFA had misrepresented or misconstrued his communication. It’s undeniably confusing, however, that he says to the FFA that advertising did occur in this email, and said the opposite when contacted by phone. Mr. Hagen has declined to comment further. It’s unclear whether the discrepancies in General Mill’s communication with the FFA will be explained, but in the meantime the issue is gathering attention and momentum in the queer community.

 

UPDATE: General Mills published a blog post from their Vice President of Communications Tom Forsythe, which reads in part:

As we have explained to bloggers all weekend, the sexual orientation of characters was not a factor in our decision. General Mills does not make advertising placement decisions based on the sexual orientation of characters. Nor was our decision the result of external pressure from any group.

We made our decision based on audience demographics. We also considered program content, which has evolved into areas such as stalking and student-teacher relationships. The sexual orientation of characters on the program wasn’t a factor. 

It does not confirm, deny or explain the email that Jeff Hagen sent, other than to declare that the FFA’s statement that “General Mills says NO to Pretty Little Liars Lesbian Content” is “incorrect.” (The FFA is not mentioned by name in the post.)

 

Ronda Scholting, Public Relations Manager for RE/MAX, said that she’s never heard of the show and was unable to confirm whether Margaret Kelly really had sent the email in question to the FFA. The FFA’s website says that Kelly told them “We have looked into this situation and discovered that while we purchase advertising on this cable station, we do not purchase advertising on that particular show… We have informed our media company to be sure to reference our list of shows that we do not want to advertise on …  this show is on the list. This should not happen again.” Scholting said she would look into the issue before speaking further, and has made no comment as of press time. Kelly’s (alleged) email communication didn’t specifically mention the gay content of the show that was Canton’s concern.

David Caton has historically opposed protections for gay and transgender people in Tampa, as well as “Gay Days” at Disney, GSAs, queer theory classes, selling porn at convenience stores, “raunchy radio,” and perhaps most puzzling, light rail. The FFA has no phone number listed on their website, and emails to them went unanswered. How effective have they really been in trying to stop teenage girls across America from realizing that “young, pretty women” can in fact be lesbians? At this point, it may be up for debate. But to the extent that the FFA may or may not have seen any benefit from putting pressure on these corporations, there’s certainly room for others to as well. Pretty Little Liars and shows like it aren’t the key to equal rights for the queer community, but for kids who need to see themselves reflected back into their lives — the exact same girls that the FFA claims to be worried about — it’s worth protecting.

 

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 761 articles for us.

32 Comments

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      Yeah they think three out of the four main characters are lesbians. See even crazy straight people can see that Spencers’ gay, and that Hanna is in an on and off again relationship with Mona. I wish the show was all teenage lesbians and one hetero, that shit would be epic. Just think of the sleepovers. lol
      Fuck I like the honey Chex cereal too much, what will I have when its too hot to eat oatmeal?
      Also that video was great because yeah being a lesbian is awesome.

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    Thanks for following up. I’m still confused though, to be honest. I wonder if they sent email responses to Caton to placate him, or if they meant it. I’m shocked a company would let non-spokespeople send out emails on the company’s advertising strategy or stance on an issue like gay marriage. Seems a little bush league to me.

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      That’s a good suggestion Deb – lets celebrate the positive!
      Tho would be good to get to the truth – hateful that one man, masquerading as ‘THOUSANDS’ (lol) can bully companies into moral-panic-reactions like this.

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    just left Mr. Jeff Hagen a strongly worded e-mail on his actions. Went a little something like this……
    “Jeff,
    Although I respect the fact that as Director of consumer Services at General Mills, you are allowed to make decisions as to when you would like to air commercials regarding General Mills products, I am appalled to see that you are withdrawing sponsorship from the TV show Pretty Little Liars. As I understand the reasoning behind this, is in fact that General Mills as a corporation does not consent to sponsoring this show because the lesbian scenes may alter, or somehow effect its audiences sexual orientation. I would first like you to ask yourself that, if this had been another show with heterosexual relationships and heterosexual love scenes, would you have still withdrawn sponsorship? Secondly I would like you to ask yourself how this move will effect the General Mills Corporation. I would be more than pleased to hear back from you, regarding this act of hate.

    -Johanna Tiarks
    P.s I will no longer be buying your delicious sugary cereals, they make children fat anyways.”

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    Rachel, I don’t see this as confusing. I see this as two companies got busted. These were not public communications. It appears Re/Max and General Mills sent emails because they were fearful of this group (or should we say person) causing problems. It also appears they figured these would be private communications and LGBT groups would be none the wiser. Simply, they wanted to appease an anti-gay agenda so as not have controversy, got busted and now have a controversy that they probably wanted a lot less.

    FFA was very specific that they wanted to boycott the advertisers solely because of lesbianism so it is highly unlikely Mr. Hagen misunderstood. At this point, I would recommend these incidents be reported to GLAAD asap including all the relevant information.

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    “and perhaps most puzzling, light rail” <-hilarious.

    one issue that remains unresolved for me is whether these people had authority to speak for the ENTIRE corporation they worked for and whether their statements actually reflect the policy of those corporations. its a teen show, so I could see remax not advertising on it, since teens don't buy houses.
    general mills…well, teens eat cereal so that makes less sense to me.

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      Cereal commercials tend to be geared toward little kids, even if they aren’t the only ones who eat the cereal. You rarely see commercials for Lucky Charms, for example, outside of kids’ shows and networks. The only cereal commercials I can think of seeing recently on non-kids’ shows were the non-sugary “healthy” kind.

      Then again, General Mills owns a lot of other brands besides just cereal.

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    Maybe they don’t want small kids watching the show…. general mills main demographic. I agree. There is a forum where parents can address social issues such as gay and transgendered people. I just don’t think I would like for a fictional TV show to educate my children on that subject. It is enough that this stuff gets shoved down our throats on a daily basis, can kids be left out of this? I mean, in my area LOGO channel is strategically placed next to nick Jr. Why? It seems that aside from all human rights issues (equality across all sexual orientations, right to marry and all other issues) overexposure to such things can lead to desensitization and fool our childeren in to thinking this is the norm.

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      Um, yeah, because when I was a kid, I made sure to find out which shows General Mills cereal was being advertised on and I watched it just for the adverts. It was the most riveting part of my childhood. I miss those days so much.

      Now that I come to think of it, the suggestive nature of Honey Nut Cheerios probably turned me gay.

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      Pretty Little Liars isn’t geared toward little kids, though, and indeed, most of its viewers are in the 12-18 demographic. If you were worried about little kids being exposed to gay and trans people (and it’s a little insulting to say actual people are just “social issues”), you would not go after this show.

      FFA knows this and is being deceptive by saying “children” watch the show – yes, people between the ages of 12 and 17 are “children” in the legal definition, but most people would not use the word “child” to refer to someone in that age group, they’d use “pre-teen,” “teenager” or “adolescent.”

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      And even if there were tons of YOUNG children watching PLL, I don’t feel like shows have an obligation toward viewers that are outside of their intended demographic. Which is why it makes me laugh when these same sorts of groups complain that Glee needs to be accountable for the fact that 7-year-olds are watching it. Glee was not intended for that young of an audience, and if you’re letting your 7-year-old watch a show that jokes about oral sex, premature ejaculation, drug dealing and scissoring and had a major storyline about teen pregnancy, and then you’re shocked when a few of the adult actors don’t think twice before appearing in a sexy photoshoot in magazine, the joke’s on you.

      Not everything has to be kid-friendly, anymore than every kids’ show has to be watchable for adults.

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      Personally, I’d say that children only need to be protected from the insinuation that LGBT people are somehow *not* within the norm and that they are some kind of social “issue” that must be addressed privately by their family rather than regarded in the media as simply normal.

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    Good for you guys following up and contacting the companies. It’s the real journalism that networks and newspapers lack too often these days. I like the idea someone had above of getting a list of the advertisers to show support for.

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    My problem with this is that a lot of people who are anti-gay or whatever will probably not watch PLL. To that end, they will not see a General Mills ad during the broadcast BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT WATCHING. It won’t send the wrong message to the families because if they really care that much about their children being brainwashed with the queer agenda, they wouldn’t own a television. Or a computer. Or a radio. Or eyes.
    And let’s be real, if some homophobe was watching PLL, and saw a commerical for Cheerios, CHANCES ARE they wouldn’t think, “Oh, General Mills is supporting the gay agenda because they’re advertising during PLL so I don’t think I’ll buy Cheerios anymore.” People just aren’t that bright.

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    Things that amuse me about the FFA’s statement (because I am too tired of getting worked up sometimes):

    a) that they think PLLs has a mostly lesbian cast (it’s cute that they don’t even realize how much we are lacking in shows that fit that category, isn’t it?).

    b) that it’s unbelievable for lesbians to be young, pretty women. First of all, all lesbians are young and/or women at some point (they do not burst fully formed out of their fathers’ heads as old and unattractive). Second of all, FFA, I’m a young pretty woman and a lesbian! What now?

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    I noticed AfterEllen picked this story up and linked to you guys, which is cool. I am torn since General Mills apparently ranked perfect on protections for its gay employees by HRC and what happened with PLL is unclear. But I think a swift united response is letting corporate America know that we lesbians ain’t nuttin’ to fuck wit.

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