Trailblazers. In creative and media circles, just about everyone wants to be one.
But to be a real trailblazer, particularly in adland, you have to challenge convention and put yourself in the firing line.
PrideAM first stuck its head over the parapet in 2015. As the world’s first not-for-profit inter-industry organisation campaigning for more and better LGBT+ representation in advertising and marketing, it has been an increasingly impressive presence in the ad industry ever since. And we all know it’s needed.
Their Trailblazers event at Chime's offices last Thursday was an opportunity for both PrideAM and an expert panel to question how attitudes towards sexuality have changed over the last 50 years, and where exactly we go to from here to deliver true equality.
Here are the key takeaways from the event:
1. Brands and Pride
The question of whether brands should be a part of the annual Pride in London march and other similar events around the UK is a divisive one. Recently, accusations of pinkwashing have accompanied Pride, with people questioning how much brands are doing for LGBT+ rights beyond turning up on the day; or rather, being seen to turn up.
Linda Riley, editor of DIVA Magazine and the Labour Party’s LGBT+ diversity lead, said brands should absolutely be involved. "Prides on a large scale aren’t sustainable and we need to accept that brands need to be involved. However, a balance should be struck where corporate involvement does not mean a loss of control for the LGBT+ community."
Lord Smith of Finsbury – the first openly gay British MP, former Culture Minister, and for a decade Chair of the ASA – agreed with Riley. Whilst he welcomed the financial clout brands can bring to Pride, he insisted that "we must maintain absolute control over the message of Pride."
Riley and Smith were joined on the panel by YouTuber and fashion and beauty expert James Welsh. Welsh too said that brands should 100% be present. "Raising awareness is so important. We’re one big community. Families are turning out to support Pride these days."
But trans and genderqueer performance artist Katy Jalili disagreed with the other panel members, asking: "What comes out of it? Will the brands support community centres or LGBT+ homeless charities? The issues we face don’t end at the Pride celebrations."
A 2015 report by the Albert Kennedy Trust first showed the scale of LGBT+ youth homelessness in the UK. LGBT+ people made up almost a quarter of the young homeless. This means that they are up to seven times over-represented.
2. Creating Space
Pride isn’t the only LGBT+ space potentially suffering from infringement.
London Night Czar Amy Lamé, who compered the evening, kicked things off by saying how the struggle for LGBT+ spaces was something she was all too aware of. "In London boroughs over the past 10 years, we’ve lost 58% of LGBT+ spaces. Some boroughs have lost well over 70%."
Even spaces closer to home (or rather, work) are compromised. 41% of LGBT+ staff do not feel comfortable coming out at work, and 62% of LGBT+ graduates go back into the closet after starting their first job.
"Big brands are doing just enough to say look we’re really good. And actually, they could be doing an awful lot more," said Lord Smith. "It’s in their commercial interest to do it – because there are millions of us out there who are going to respond well to those sorts of messages."
3. We Need to Diversify Diversity
There’s further concern that even for those brands that feature LGBT+ community members, the tone of the portrayal is generic.
"It’s a bugbear. Lesbians are always shown as having 2.4 kids in a lesbian household," said Lamé. "We need to diversify diversity. Just because we now have the rights that we should always have been entitled to, it does not mean that we erase our identity and we now fit into a hetero-normative box that makes it easier for straight people to understand us."
"In the industry we’re really trying to escape the stereotypes of a gay man and a gay woman," said Riley. She notes that there is a marked divide between perceptions of gay men and lesbians, both in terms of how regularly they feature in ads and how much a brand is willing to pay to advertise in a lesbian magazine when compared to a magazine targeted at gay men.
James Welsh concurred that the portrayal of LGBT+ groups risks style over substance. "It’s on trend to have gay men. White, gay men seem to be the default."
"It’s taken a really long time for people to grasp intersectionality and to understand it. That people can have so many multiple identities that are all equally important to them and need to be represented," says Jalili. "We need more diverse owned companies, more LGBT+ owned companies, more LGBT+ People of Colour. The best advertising starts from the bottom."
4. The community needs Its allies
One of the most common misapprehensions of any struggle for representation is that it’s exclusive.
Straight, cis-gendered people still have their part to play. Riley declared that "straight allies are important because they are listened to in a different way."
Welsh added that through their contributions, straight people help prevent the voices of the LGBT+ community from being dismissed as merely "a bunch of angry gays or angry lesbians".
The panel also agreed that members of the LGBT+ community need to demonstrate stronger alliances between themselves. For example, how L, G and B can better support T.
"Not enough is being done for LGBT People of Colour or Trans people of any colour," said Lord Smith. "We need to embrace them and their causes more warmly. More legislative change is needed."
5. Where we go from here
So what steps can be taken within the advertising industry to improve its relationship with the LGBT+ community?
President of PrideAM, Mark Runacus, stressed that one of the most important things the network is focussing on is surfacing LGBT+ role models in media and creative industries, as part of a wider, joined-up inclusion and diversity strategy. In 2018, PrideAM, supported by NABS, will be offering free role model workshops for LGBT+ people and their allies working in the advertising sector.
Following its successful launch last year, details of PrideAM's Pride Brand Makeover 2018 will be announced in May. PrideAM President Mark Runacus explained: "One of the main barriers to brands and their agencies including more LGBT+ content in their mainstream advertising is fear - fear of failure, fear of some kind of backlash, so we wanted to remove as many barriers as possible for them to test it. In our inaugural year 24 campaigns were "made over" and submitted for the free-to-enter competition. We're looking forward to seeing many more brands and their agencies enter made-over campaigns in 2018."
Supported by Creativebrief, PrideAM will also publish "Outvertising 2", a free guide for those wanting to include LGBT+ content in mainstream advertising. Working with PrideAM, Creativebrief has pledged to use its brand and agency reach to make a deliberate and worthwhile contribution to better LGBT+ representation.
It was evident that the trailblazers on the panel had between them inspired people, communities, industries and even governments to change. The evening also called for more trailblazers to get involved, informed and make a difference.
The time to start getting it right is now.
Phil Clements is a member and spokesperson for PrideAM