Brands can only benefit from rethinking their use of LGBT people in advertising
A view from Matt Lister

Brands can only benefit from rethinking their use of LGBT people in advertising

Matt Lister, one of the stars of Rowse Honey's recent ad about gay bears, says brands must get bolder in representing the diverse LGBT community in advertising.

For years, the LGBT community has been largely invisible in UK advertising. Not so today. In recent months, LGBT people have featured in campaigns for McCain, Coca-Cola, Lloyds Bank and now Rowse Honey. But while some brand owners are getting bolder, when it comes to effectively tackling under-representation there is still a long way to go.  

As a gay man who has featured in two campaigns so far – one for Moss Bros, the other for Rowse which broke last week – I have seen many advertisers’ interest in the LGBT community move from disinterest through bandwagon-ing to tick box exercise and thankfully more recently celebrating us. 

On the positive side, this has reflected a growing interest in and willingness to more fairly – and accurately – echo the make-up of British society. On the negative side, however, there has been a tendency by some to present their LGBT-friendliness as a campaigning statement rather than simply as a depiction of something normal and everyday. 

Rowse Honey is a good example of a brand with a positive approach to LGBT. The Rowse campaign is about gay bears – a sub-group of the gay community that is under-represented by mainstream media preoccupied with a particular type of gay man who has a perfect life, pet dog, certain body, money and type of house and car only enjoyed by a very small percentage of gay men. 

The ad is an update of the Goldilocks fairy tale for a YouTube audience in which I am one of three bears – the two others are also played by gay bears – who share a house and cook together, using Rowse Honey. A large proportion of my friendship group is made up of gay bears, and I was thrilled to be approached to be part of this campaign as it’s something not touched on by advertising before so felt very modern. 

 My experience with Moss Bros was also positive, both for that brand’s celebration of me as an LGBT person and for its willingness to go beyond a generic approach – in other words, many advertisers’ tendency to present gay men (then, to a lesser extent, lesbians) as representative of the LGBT community. 

Though a very masculine, butch brand, the company’s agency approached me to front a recent campaign and the pictures that resulted were very masculine. But the follow-up PR they did with me was very celebratory of the fact I am an LGBT person. It is a great example of how parts of the ad industry are making positive steps to move forward and be more inclusive. 

I am proud of the fact that having now appeared in two campaigns, each time being true to myself as an LGBT person, I have played my part in normalising LGBT people for younger generations of people – both LGBT and straight. 

When I was growing up, I didn’t have any gay role models to look up to and while at school wished being gay would "go away". Today, I have had messages from kids to say my example has really helped them through some dark times. 

As well as social benefits, there are business benefits to featuring more LGBT in UK advertising campaigns, too. 

Some 66% of people claimed LGBT people weren’t shown often enough in marketing campaigns, according to a study by UM London and Grindr conducted among gay and bisexual users of the app earlier this year.  Companies making a noticeable effort to reach LGBT consumers stand to benefit, the study found, as 49% of respondents said they’d be more likely to buy from brands featuring LGBT people in their ads. 

Moving forward, I believe that brand owners should learn from Rowse and Moss Bros’ approach. It won’t always be easy to represent LGBT people in their campaigns and nor will it always work, but it’s something that needs to be done when it can be. And as brands feel more confident doing so, their campaigns and their approaches will grow in confidence and sophistication.

Featuring gay bears is a welcome step forward, but there are so many other areas to explore: the trans community, for a start, but also the queer community and the drag community – people who are in themselves entertainers and naturally grab people’s attention. Much has already been achieved but much more could be by brands bold enough to embrace an LGBT community that is as vibrant as it is diverse.

Matt Lister is a British slalom canoer who won two bronze medals in the C-2 team event at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships n 2011 and 2013. He is currently working as an LGBT ambassador for the British Athletes Commission.