My kids have two mums. Hardly anyone around us bats an eyelid at that fact. Their teachers and all of our friends tell them that being different is a special and wonderful thing and they are taught that diversity in all aspects of life is important and to be celebrated. Yet, when our kids watch TV they almost never see a family that looks like their own.
That’s not to say TV hasn’t made progress on diversity and representation. A recent breakthrough was a same-sex parent family featuring on the CBeebies documentary, Our Family, which follows the lives of kids and their families.
Advertising, too, is making some headway. Last year, Argos launched an ad with a black same-sex parent family and a new Pantene campaign showcases the true story of trans girl and her two mothers.
Yet still too often in ad campaigns depicting families, non-traditional family units tend to be reduced to a split-second tableau in a montage – and that's on the rare occasion they get featured at all. I sit on the board of directors for Outvertising, the not-for-profit LGBTQ+ advertising and marketing advocacy group, and even we struggle to come up with a decent list of ads that feature same sex-parent families.
I know firsthand the positive impact that seeing yourself reflected on screen can have on you as a young person from a minority group. But representation in TV, film and advertising is not just critical so that kids like mine don’t feel excluded. In our privileged adland bubble, it can be easy to think that society is more accepting than it is. Children from heteronormative families need to be able to learn about and appreciate the wonderful diversity of family units.
For all of the talk about inclusivity and boosting representation, advertising has a very long way to go to catch up with modern families. Channel 4’s most recent annual diversity report found that the LGBT+ community features in just 3% of ads in the UK, despite making up at least 6% of the population. In addition, 60% of people believe that when represented, the LGBT+ community are often shown in tokenistic roles.
Brands are resisting putting non-heteronormative families and couples front-and-centre in their campaigns in part out of fear. Ads showcasing diversity can receive a backlash, as we saw with the racial abuse that Sainsbury’s received as a result of its Christmas ad last year starring a black family.
Brands are also wary of seeming tokenistic and opening themselves up to accusations of rainbow-washing their communications. But if brands make creative choices that are authentic rather than treating diversity and representation as a box-ticking exercise, they shouldn’t face charges of tokenism.
We can also blame this slow progress on the lack of diversity in the advertising industry. The recent IPA census shows that the industry is falling short of its diversity targets. A diversity of leaders, workers and collaborators would enable this industry to create authentically representative work that doesn’t resort to clichés and stereotypes. If you are part of a creative team that is not diverse then it is incumbent on you to bring in diverse partners and collaborators, from casting agents to directors, to support and inform the work.
There is a huge opportunity for brands to step up and change culture. One day, a non-heteronormative TV family will be as famous and culture-defining as the Oxo family was. Wouldn’t you want your brand to be among the first to make that happen?
Anna Brent is the executive producer and head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Across the Pond