The 'coming out' of advertising: is LGBT+ representation in ads still falling short?

Campaign spoke to members of the LGBT+ community in the marketing communications industry to explore how they are represented in the mainstream media, and discovered brands still have a long way to go. Sonoo Singh reports.

The 'coming out' of advertising: is LGBT+ representation in ads still falling short?

Social media continues to be used as the main-stage for expressions of LGBT+ rights, and when a big advertiser reflects the experiences of the community on television it elicits applause. Last year, Lloyds Bank prominently featured a same-sex couple’s marriage proposal in a TV ad. Its outdoor campaign showed the same couple with the words: "He said yes." An example of a brand that not only understands the business of gay pride, but also recognises the need to be inclusive of the LGBT+ community in its mainstream advertising. The same year, Tesco unveiled its "Basket dating" Valentine’s Day ad, which paired up potential dates based on the contents of their shopping baskets – another case of positive LGBT+ representation. 

Tesco: ‘Basket dating’ ad for 2016’s Valentine’s Day included men meeting in a store and going on a date together

Brands have increasingly been reflecting broader changes in society. IKEA has been using diverse imagery in its ads since 1994, when it became the first marketer to feature a gay couple in a mainstream ad. In 1997, a Volks-wagen Golf ad featured two men who may have been a couple. Almost a decade ago, in 2008, a spot for Pepsi Max showed two men in a bar encouraging their friend to chat up a woman. The man takes a drink, then walks past two women – one being the model Kelly Brook – to approach another man at the end of the bar. The same year Heinz ran an ad for its Deli Mayo in which two men kissed each other goodbye before one left for work, although it was eventually pulled following complaints. In 2009, meanwhile, Absolut Vodka unveiled a rainbow-design bottle to mark the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and four decades of gay pride. 

"I can just see the advertiser deciding ‘Ooh, the same-sex couple can hug, maybe not kiss’" Asad Dhunna PrideAM

Once uncertain about marketing to this community, many brands are now grappling with how best to keep up with rapid social change and reflect their own markets and consumers. Progress toward a more inclusive narrative has been slow, but with Tim Cook becoming the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to publicly identify as gay in 2014, and last year the Star Trek franchise showing that a main character, Sulu, was married to another man, it is clear that the pace of advocacy in the mainstream has stepped up. 

One millennial working in advertising shares his experience of growing up with the absence of LGBT+ representation on TV. "I remember over-effeminate gay characters in TV shows, but nothing that was particularly reflective of what my life as a gay adult is now," says Oliver Barter, a content writer at Gyro London. 

"As a child, there was always a giddy thrill whenever I saw something gay – because it was so infrequent. The dilemma of being desperate to see representation of my secret self and not wanting to appear too interested in case it attracted unwanted attention and accusations – it was exhausting, and I’m glad that, for me at least, those days are over."  

Several others suggest that although businesses might be opening up their conversations to include the gay community, especially "beautiful gay men", they are still failing those who do not conform to the binary gender concept –when people adopt gender traits outside society’s typical expectations. A recent study conducted by Ana-Isabel Nölke, a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh on the representation of sexualities in advertising from 2009 to 2014, notes there is a continuous strong gay male bias in ads and decreasing representation or ambiguous portrayal of lesbians. 

Asad Dhunna, an LGBT+ Muslim advocate, writer and a member of PrideAM, the ad industry’s LGBT+ leadership group, cites the Lloyds campaign as a case in point. "Many brands have got the ‘LG’ of LGBT+ right, but I cannot think of those that go beyond that, or even brands that get the representation of the lesbian community right," he says. Dhunna finds the Lloyds campaign somewhat contrived, with the couple embracing at the end. "It seems odd that a couple will hug and not kiss in that situation. I can just see the advertiser getting cold feet and deciding ‘Ooh, the same-sex couple can hug, maybe not kiss.’ The Tesco Valentine’s ad, however, feels much more natural."

Lloyds: 2016 ad campaign featured a same-sex couple’s marriage proposal

Beware of tokenism

There appears to be a consensus that businesses are often scared of failing to appeal to particular audience segments – especially when it comes to minority communities of any kind – because it may mean missing out on securing market share. 

The overturning of many anti- LGBT+ laws in the Western world has changed things, but the portrayal of LGBT+ people still seems to be a "checkbox" for brands, according to Joe Parker, an ad executive at customer experience agency Biglight. 

The imperative for the ad industry is to ensure that businesses trying to court new customers are not simply about exploiting "new and emerging markets", but that they really understand the experiences of those people, says Stephen Martincic, chief brand and marketing officer at Ascential, the parent company of the Cannes Lions. "There is a lot of ‘diversity’ talk around the LGBT+ communities, but is that happening to keep up with the times, or to effect actual change and celebrate inclusivity?" he asks.

Jonah Disend, founder and chief executive of brand consultancy Redscout, highlights another problem with media representation of LGBT+ people – their frequent portrayal in a heteronormative way. 

Heteronormativity in media is displayed as a cultural bias in favour of opposite-sex relationships and treats gender as binary – the idea that there is an either/or option of male or female, rather than a spectrum of gender identities. 

"There is no nuance or insight in how we are portrayed sometimes – it just feels like casting – oh, look, two men or two women, generally with adorable children," adds Disend. 

Amelia Priddis, brand strategist at Ogilvy & Mather London and Ogilvy Pride (Ogilvy Group’s LGBT+ and inclusive marketing network), acknowledges the issue and adds how "repulsed" she feels when she sees ads "doing [a] heteronormative gay family, with two perfect men in a perfect setting".  

However, according to a recent study from Ogilvy Pride (see box, right), as millennials continue to challenge the binary narrative, brands will need to understand these multi-dimensional conversations about gender and sexuality.

Ogilvy Pride conducted a historical review of LGBT+ characters on TV, film and in ads that revealed certain trends. Over a decade or two, the character will go from negative representation (the freak homosexual who is murdered), to pro-diversity (cliché) representation (this is the homosexual – they are a homosexual – they do homosexual things); to seamlessly integrated (character happens to be gay). While LGBT+ people continue to be underrepresented in much of the mainstream media, things are slowly changing. 

The New Normal is ‘No Normal’

Ogilvy Pride conducted qualitative and quantitative research with 18- to 25-year- olds across the UK to gain insight into their understanding of gender. 

The study covered their attitudes toward gender identity and diversity and their reflection in the media, and included interviews with experts in the field. The study revealed three key findings.

1. Genderqueer discrimination starts with feminine qualities having less value in our society (than masculine qualities)

There was consensus from the research audience that masculine qualities were favoured over feminine ones. This is played out with a general acceptance of genderqueer people with an androgynous presentation, but a strong aversion to genderqueer with a more feminine presentation. 

2. Young consumers are rejecting norms but craving normality

Eighteen- to 25-year-olds do not want to be put in boxes, they reject labels and hence are very open to questioning the current norms of gender and sexuality. ?Both cisgender and non-binary gendered people are open to challenging the binary narrative surrounding gender. Moreover, although several cisgender respondents had somewhat limited exposure to and understanding of genderqueer people, they accepted that there was a gender spectrum and were generally very encouraging of a more gender-neutral society. 

3. TV, media and advertising plays a critical role in educating and driving social acceptance of LGBT+ people, which young consumers want to see

Although lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are still underrepresented in much of the mainstream media, things are changing. Television is offering primetime audiences the chance to "get to know" lesbian and gay characters in soap operas, drama series and sitcoms. However, there is some way to go in terms of positively representing trans characters, as their stories are often reduced to clichés or focused on satisfying cisgender people’s curiosity about the physical aspects of transitioning.

What does this mean for brands?

  • Be aware of the gendered narrative you script for your brand’s communication to understand the impact of the brand on society ?
  • Normalise genderqueer people by being inclusive and representative  
  • With more than 45% of consumers under the age of 34 saying they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBT+-friendly company, now is the time to embrace the new "no normal". 

Beyond pride

LGBT+ people might be all but invisible on our screens, but when it comes to events such as Pride, a growing number of brands want to get involved. Initiatives around Pride events have become more sophisticated – from Burger King’s "Proud Whopper" and the Rainbow Google Doodle to the W Hotels campaign to launch Jen-nifer Hudson’s I Still Love You video, which depicts a father’s last-minute decision to attend his gay son’s wedding. But how relevant does such activity feel when created solely to chase the "pink pound"? 

"I hate the idea of the pink pound… If you are selling to me as a gay woman, I resent that, because I am so much more than that. Unless brands really understand how to be more reflective of the society they operate in, this [one-off initiatives around diversity] is all meaningless," Priddis contends. 

Burger King: launched its Proud Whopper to coincide with San Francisco Pride 2014

In Martincic’s view, another big problem is the fact that the people who create campaigns featuring LGBT+ people are largely not part of that community themselves, and tend to call on stereotypes when trying to feature it. More depressingly, in the creative industries that should be more welcoming than most, it is not unusual for people to "not be out and proud" in the workplace, according to Daniel Thompson, a partner at Havas Media Group’s new digital division, Connections. He helped set up InterComms, a networking group to provide a forum for raising issues. InterComms’ founder and chair, Ethan Spibey, adds that the forum is currently working to create a charter to support and recognise LGBT+ communities in workplaces that will cut across industries. 

Brands such as Aviva, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Kellogg and General Mills are often singled out by LGBT+ rights advocacy groups for adopting broader policies on diversity and inclusion. 

 Jan Gooding, Aviva’s global inclusion director and chair of trustees at Stonewall, concludes optimistically: "The fact we are having more conversations about this can only be good news. The battle has not been won, but the world as I see it is more positive than negative."   

Rhyannon Styles

Styles is an influential British activist, Elle UK columnist, and author of the memoir The New Girl: a Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is  

When I was growing up, there were no conversations happening around trans people, let alone any kind of representation in the media or popular culture; not until Nadia Almada won Big Brother in 2004 and put a face and personality to people’s stereotyped ideas about transsexual people. Not only was this one of the first times this had happened, but the country was celebrating a trans person, which showed a spirit of awareness and tolerance. Since then, small steps have been taken toward trans equality. Growing up in very heteronormative boundaries, I cannot even imagine what the freedom of expression available today must feel like for trans teenagers. 

I think it would be fair to say that the depiction seems to have changed from covert targeting in print media to explicit imagery of LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream media. However, if you look at a lot of ads targeting LGBTQ+ [people], it seems they are defining these communities through sexuality alone, because sex sells. But we have to realise the many differences and nuances between sexual orientation and gender identity. I’d like to see those identities explored within ads targeting LGBTQ+ communities. I’d like to see a more diverse representation of LGBTQ+ people in mainstream advertising [and] media. Last year, trans activist and model Munroe Bergdorf was featured in a campaign for Uniqlo, but it is the kind of a brand that has always felt inclusive and diverse. I would like to see more trans people put slap-bang on a brand and to be the face of a big brand, but without really shouting about it. [For example], the Magnum celebrity drag queens campaign in 2015 – it was so beautifully done and it did not feel like a brand segmenting a particular type of people, but was instead inspiring and enabling. 

This year, Unilever-owned Dove included a trans mum in its new #RealMums motherhood campaign. While in India, Procter & Gamble’s recent Vicks campaign – "Touch of care" – advocates for trans rights. The poignant campaign tells the true story of a young Indian orphan adopted by Gauri Sawant, a 37-year-old Mumbai-based transgender woman and social activist.