This Doco Explores The ‘Coded’ Queer Messaging Of Ads From 100-Years Ago & My Heart Can’t Take It

Contributor: PEDESTRIAN.TV

It’s currently Sydney WorldPride and whilst we’re all celebrating and dancing the nights away, it’s important to remember that not so long ago, being able to express queer love was forbidden.

One documentary that highlights this is Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker. 

Born in Germany in 1874 before immigrating to America as a child, J.C. Leyendecker was one of the most famous illustrators of the 1920s working on magazine covers and advertisements. But, his legacy is largely forgotten.

Forced to keep his sexuality a secret, his imagery spoke to the gay community in “code” and laid the foundation for the LGBTQIA+ representation we see in the media today.

In 2021, Procter and Gamble, the creators of Pantene, Oral-B, Gillette, Olay, Fairy and VOOST, released this documentary to share his life with the world.

The short film is narrated by actor Neil Patrick Harris and charts the illustrator’s life and the historical context of being a queer man in the early 20th century.

Described as the “grandfather of modern advertising”, the documentary also explores how today’s LGBTQIA+ advertisements are built upon a foundation of his life’s work.

Brent Miller, a producer of the film and a P&G global LGBTQIA+ equality leader recently spoke at a WorldPride activation in partnership with P&G where he said, “Despite Leyendecker’s story being one of 100 years ago it’s so relevant today. The choices we make about how we represent people is not a political choice, it’s a human choice. We never made this film to win awards, we made it to tell a story and move important issues forward.”

Image of Brent Miller

We spoke with Brent to learn more about Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker, which you can watch on Paramount+ now.

What was the process of creating Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker? How did you get involved with the project?

Many aspects of the LGBTQIA+ experience have not been fully explored. This includes the history of LGBTQIA+ equality in the workplace and the role of companies in shaping the representation of the community in advertising. In 2018, P&G began to create a series of short documentaries exploring its own history in this space.

As an extension of this work, P&G set up to create a documentary exploring the history of LGBTQIA+ representation in advertising.

In this process, we discovered the art of J.C. Leyendecker in our own archives through brands like Gillette and Ivory Soap. After researching his incredible story and his impact on art and culture, we decided to focus more on J.C., his relationships and what we can do today, as modern advertisers.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, how would you describe the documentary?

Coded: The Hidden Love Of J.C. Leyendecker explores the incredible story of one of American history’s most important commercial artists through his personal relationships and their relations to his art.

His art provided imagery that shaped culture while depicting male relationships that often went unnoticed by the general public. Although he was one of the primary image makers of his day, he was largely erased from history due to his sexual orientation. 

What was Leyendecker’s impact on queer representation in the arts and media?

Leyendecker was a pioneer in depicting not only the male figure but also male relationships.  He created some of the earliest male sex symbols in popular culture and redefined how the male figure was depicted in advertising. Today, we look back at his story as not only one that helped to visually depict the cultures and customs of a generation, but also paved the way for queer representation in art and culture.

Why is it so important to share queer history through storytelling?

Leyendecker’s story reminds us that progress towards equality in society is not linear but, rather, cyclical. We can never take for granted the steps forward we make towards a more equal world.

We must stay vigilant, use our voice to be heard and encourage open and honest dialogue that helps us drive mutual conversation and empathy.

Leyendecker was discriminated against for being gay, what’s it like to share his story as a queer person?

It is an incredible privilege to share J.C.’s story with a new generation. His art helped to define a critical period of history while also depicting a decades-long love story.

His work deserves to be understood, celebrated and appreciated both on the merits of his genius but also for what it represents to the LGBTQIA+ experience.

What do you want audiences to get out of this viewing experience?

My hope is that it helps foster a dialogue about the importance of LGBTQIA+ representation in advertising and the impact it can have both on the viewer seeking to find their own place in the world and for creating empathy and understanding between different groups of people.

By looking at our past, we can find opportunities in the future and a way forward that is important for all of us.

Image taken at the Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker Sydney WorldPride event.

What does it mean to you to be a P&G global LGBTQIA+ equality leader?

As one of the world’s largest advertisers, we have a great responsibility to accurately and authentically represent all people. The power of advertising to influence culture, reflect who we are and create empathy is incredible.

When we can do that responsibly—without stereotyping or shortcutting—we not only help people to better connect with the LGBTQIA+ community but also help to reflect a part of culture that has been (and still is) far too underrepresented.

Procter & Gamble Australia’s Lead with Love float with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, 2023.

Whilst Coded was released in 2021, what does it mean to you to be promoting it at Sydney WorldPride?

I’m sure J.C. Leyendecker could never have imagined a global celebration of queer culture like Sydney WorldPride and that his art would be part of that conversation 70 years after his death. It is so important that we understand our past so that we can move forward into the future and continue to build a more equal world standing on the shoulders of those that came before us.

I am constantly moved by the reaction to the film and it makes you realise how common our human experience is—not only as a queer community—but as people with far more in common than those things that separate us.

The ongoing partnership to support the LGBTQIA+ community is grounded in P&G’s mission to create a company and a world where Equality and Inclusion is achievable for all. In partnership with Sydney WorldPride and Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, P&G will continue to raise awareness about diverse issues faced by different members of the LGBTQIA+ community, thereby driving a call for action from the broader community to “Lead with Love”.

Watch Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker on Paramount+.