The state of LGBT+ representation in ads
A view from Benjamin Antoniou

The state of LGBT+ representation in ads

As LGBT+ history month concludes, Dentsu Aegis Network's diversity and inclusion manager looks at how far we have yet to go with LGBT+ inclusive advertising.

"He said yes" are the words emblazoned across the Lloyds Bank ad, which shows two newly engaged men embracing.

I genuinely stopped to take a second look when I saw it on my morning commute. As I continued I wondered why it struck me so much.

Maybe it’s because I now work in the industry that curates this imagery, the industry that holds the mirror up to society. Perhaps I’m more aware these days.

Or maybe, as a gay man, it was refreshing to see LGBT+ identities proudly displayed across an out-of-home ad.

It can be easy to forget just how recent much of the progress in terms of LGBT+ inclusion and equality in the UK has been. Equal marriage has only been law in the UK since 2014. Having turned 30 this year, almost all of my school years passed by under the restrictions of Section 28. That section of the Local Government Act forbade schools in England and Wales from discussing homosexuality as anything other than a "pretend family relationship". It was many years after leaving school that I learnt about Section 28, through my own curiosity and research, which explained to me in retrospect why I didn’t learn about any LGBT+ role models from history.

Growing up gay in the heteronormative vacuum reinforced by legislation like Section 28, you look for cues that you are "normal" and that there are others like you in society. Much like school failed me in that respect, the media and advertising that I was exposed to didn’t reassure me either. 

There are brands which championed LGBT+ identities before and throughout my school years, it is true. Most times this was done subtly, and largely the trailblazers were American. People still joke about the supposed lesbian affinity with Subarus, but it’s often forgotten that Subaru’s American division intentionally nurtured their image as the car for gay women. Through subtle Xena the Warrior Princess references (a show where the female leads appeared to be lovers), and the iconic tagline, "It’s not a choice. It’s the way we’re built," Subaru America targeted lesbian consumers in both their creative execution and subsequently in their planning strategies.

And there was that Ikea ad in 1994. What continues to make the ad capture the attention of commentators is how everyday and non-sensational the dining-room table scene was. Two men, two gay men, a couple, not too intimate and not too camp. They were just like everyone else.

Both the Subaru and Ikea campaigns were before my time really. I had no desire and even less capacity to purchase a Subaru or a dining table in the early ‘90s. Being a Brit I had to wait some time more before witnessing for myself the occasional gay kiss on UK television cause uproar with viewers and sensationalist media responses. The idea of seeing LGBT+ people in a mainstream British ad was far from my mind. I guess you don’t know what you don’t know.

Flash forward to 2017 and we have a film exploring the intersectionality of black gay male identity, Moonlight, taking home the Oscar for Best Picture. And although advertising has always lagged media for diversity representation, we are starting to see some of those ads too. But how much has really changed? Well, taking a look at the Advertising Standards Authority’s most complained about ads shows it is not misleading ads that generate the fiercest response but those accused of causing "serious or widespread offense". Dishearteningly near the top of the list is Match.com’s ad featuring a lesbian kiss.

It’s arguably easy to understand why then we’ve see the rise of the "safe gay" in mainstream advertising. In a way, not much has changed between Ikea’s dining-table scene and Tiffany’s ad featuring a gay couple in their "Will you?" series more than 20 years later. The latter features two men, two gay men, a couple, not too intimate and not too camp. They are just like everyone else.

The passing of equal marriage on both sides of the Atlantic opened up a safe space for brands to showcase heart-warming LGBT+ family scenes, but usually ones that represent one type of LGBT+ family. Don’t get me wrong, progress is progress. The increase in representation should be applauded. After all, a fairly safe LGBT+ ad stopped me in my tracks on my morning commute. That perhaps most poignantly explains why it has been shortlisted for several awards. But there is work to be done.

Until we no longer feel the need to award brands and their agencies for representing their own consumers, the work is not complete. Until those representations become braver and more inclusive of the wider LGBT+ community, the work is not complete. Until a gay man like me doesn’t stop in his tracks when he sees gay couple in an ad, you guessed it – the work is not complete. 

Benjamin Antoniou is diversity and inclusion manager at Dentsu Aegis Network

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