It was 1990s TV drama Queer As Folk that helped me to put language to parts of myself that seemed scary to me. Finding new language like this helped me to start dismantling the internal shame around sexual desires I was told were taboo or wrong.
I was gay – or so I thought at 14. And while those words seemed heavy and terrifying at first, using them eventually became as easy as ordering a coffee.
It was about more than identity. Those words brought me a sense of community and acceptance. And that acceptance helped me to embrace myself. It seemed settled.
But at 35, I began untethering from binary concepts of gender and I realised that I'd been clinging to language that no longer seemed to fit. "Gay" no longer felt right. It started to feel like a restriction. And that's when I became drawn to Bi+ identities and realised they were a better fit for me: expansive and more fluid.
These identities have much lower visibility in our media. The younger me had no chance of finding them.
GLAAD (the non-profit LGBTQ advocacy organisation) released its inaugural Advertising Visibility Index earlier this year. In a review of 400 ads, all 400 were found to provide zero or insufficient representation of the LGBTQ+ community. Not one ad had representation that was impactful or recognisable.
Bi+ representation in media was much lower than for the monosexual queer identities of gay and lesbian. And when we look at advertising specifically, GLAAD tells us that almost two-thirds of non-LGBTQ people have noted seeing gay and lesbian people in ads while less than one third saw bisexual people (61% versus 28%). While this is US data, a look at UK examples shows that we're not faring much better.
What's making it difficult to improve representation?
Graham Nolan of Do The Werq, an organisation pushing for greater queer representation in US advertising, spoke about the problem residing "in both the assumptions of the audience, and the lack of cultural resources to express bisexual identity in ads".
And he's right. We live in a culture that prioritises binary categorisation and simplicity over complexity. Compounding that is the reality that monosexual identities are easier to 'get' in short-form content. That's why Bi+ visibility in ads is still fairly rare.
But our industry loves a creative challenge and I think we can jump this hurdle, so here are three tools to help expand authentic Bi+ storytelling.
The problem with demonstrating Bi+ identities within short-form media is the risk of perpetuating promiscuous stereotypes to depict sexual attraction to multiple genders.
Take Impulse's 1998 ad "Chance encounter". It depicted a young man helping a young woman pick up groceries from the street. There's chemistry between them until his boyfriend shows up and she realises she's walking through Soho. The end-line reads: "Men can't help acting on impulse." The suggestion is that her body spray was so irresistible that it could turn him straight. It seemed to completely erase the existence of bisexual people.
On the flipside, both the Bartle Bogle Hegarty work for Absolut "Equal love" and the recent "Gucci guilty" campaign walked this tightrope perfectly.
Absolut depicts people of various gender expressions passing a kiss like a game of pass the parcel. In this context the assumed Bi+ identities of any of the talent aren't singled as being distinctly promiscuous as compared with other assumed identities. The performance is clearly surreal too – so it never feels like a comment on real behaviour.
The Gucci campaign features a polyamorous relationship between actors Elliot Page and Julia Garner, and the musician A$AP Rocky. The relationship depicted is both sexually charged and affectionate.
Physical intimacy here is a shorthand for the multiplicity of sexual attraction. But while this representation is great, Bi+ people are more than their relationships.
Bi+ identifying talent
It's a given that usings Bi+ talent in ads gives us more rounded visibility. But the problem here is twofold: a lack of visible Bi+ celebrities and low awareness of their identities for those that are visible.
Perhaps our most famous Bi+ actor in the UK currently is Kit Connor of Heartstopper. Kit plays the bisexual character Nick in the Netflix hit and was forced to come out as bisexual last year after being accused of "queer-baiting". Using bisexual talent like Kit in an ad could be a good start here.
Semiotic shortcuts to identity
I'd bet the majority of the population couldn't identify the Michael Page-designed Bisexual flag, and I'd bet a chunk of the LGBTQIA+ population couldn't either. There's an opportunity to drive awareness for the community by including this symbol within work where it feels organic.
Skittles have been making limited-edition pride packaging for the past couple of years, working with a number of queer artists on pack designs – some including the Bisexual flag.
Back in 2016, Janelle Monae starred in a Pepsi Super Bowl ad. Colours of the Pepsi logo flood the set. They came out as bisexual two years later and we see the same use of pinks and blue lights in their music video for Make Me Feel – the same colours of the flag. Janelle's new album even features a song called Only Have Eyes 42 describing a polycule. Could Monae have been using the Pepsi ad to communicate their identity before coming out?
I also spot the finger gun hand signal from A$AP Rocky in that Gucci Guilty ad. Another lesser known signifier of bisexual identity.
So let's try for Bi
Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in our media, including ads. And we have a large deficit in visibility to overcome.
There's no denying the creative challenges: risks of exacerbating unhelpful stereotypes, lack of visibly Bi+ talent and limited symbolic signifiers. But we've seen bigger creative challenges. And I believe our collective creativity can give rise to a wave of positive representation that we all deserve to see.
In memory of Corei, a trans boy who died by suicide this month
From January to the end of September this year, there have been 4,629 articles about Trans+ people in the UK news media (excluding Pink News) – the majority with negative framing. All with advertising around them. Source: Community database Dysphorum
Marty Davies (she/they) is joint chief executive of Outvertising, the marketing and advertising industry's LGBTQIA+ advocacy group; and co-founder of Trans+ Adland, a grassroots community group of trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming and intersex people across the world of marketing and advertising. They are also the founder of creative strategy consultancy Smarty Pants.