JC Penney Features Same-Sex Couple in May Catalogue

(JC Penney)

Fifteen years ago, when advertisers got wind that Ellen DeGeneres was going to "come out" on her popular sitcom show "Ellen," some advertisers fled.

One of them was JC Penney.

Flash forward to one of their newest clothing ads in the May catalog. It features a real-life same-sex couple. The photograph is of two models identified as Wendi and Maggie holding their two daughters.

Both women appear be wearing wedding bands.

Quietly, gradually and largely without protest, advertising is starting to reflect new attitudes and new realities about who we are.

"Our cultures change and I think the broader consumer and the spending power in the country has become more progressive," Eric Bovim, CEO of the ad firm Gibraltar Associates said.

There are gay couples on prime-time television shows, and now gay couples are coming out of Madison Avenue's closet, which, according to Bovim, gives way to a new target audience.

"I think companies that are successful in marketing nowadays are trying to appeal to a progressive customer," Bovim said. "They understand that customers are looking for social values, community, visionary aspirations. These are things that they buy into."

Another previously unseen group in advertisements that now is appearing more and more is interracial couples, reflecting the rising number of mixed-race marriages in the United States.

Advertisers are sending different subliminal messages.

"We are you. We know your struggle. We understand what you are going through," Bovim said. "We understand what it is like to raise a family with one person. Same-sex families. Interracial families. We understand the challenges of 2012."

The JC Penney ad has stirred some controversy. It was attacked by the conservative group One Million Moms for what the organization said was "taking sides" in the culture war.

When asked about the ad, JC Penney gave this statement:

"As jcpenney focuses on becoming America's favorite store, we want to be a store for all Americans. In celebration of Mother's Day, we're proud that our May book honors women from diverse backgrounds who all share the heartwarming experience of motherhood."

Bovim says the move was probably motivated as much by JC Penney's difficult financial straits as by progressive.

"JC Penney's customer was an endangered species. They've lost $3 billion in revenue in the last four years, so they need to find a new customer base, and the way they've gone about doing that is appeal to new demographics," Bovim said.

To help appeal to that new demographic, JC Penney has a new celebrity spokesperson: Ellen DeGeneres.