why we need stronger lgbt+ representation in advertising

It’s probably not a massive shock that LGBT+ people are woefully under represented in advertising -- and then there’s the sad fact that the most complained about ad of 2016 was a builder in heels. So what’s being done to change this? We find out.

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Dec 7 2017, 6:32pm

Image via Absolut Kiss with Pride

This article was originally published by i-D UK.

American advertising leader Leo Burnett once said of his industry, “Good advertising does not just circulate information; it penetrates the public mind with desires and belief.” Recent research into the state of advertising reveals a daily exposure of up to 5,000 messages per individual — today’s advertising holds huge importance when reflecting and indeed progressing the world around us.

Alarming then, that a huge chunk of the LGBT+ community are failing to receive representation among our pages and screens. Just last year, MoneySupermarket’s heel-clad dancing builders and Match.com’s same-sex kiss ads topped the ASA charts for the most complained about adverts that “caused offense.” This reflects not only a misunderstanding within our media but some deep-rooted discrimination within our culture.

PrideAM has set out to to correct this — the first LGBT+ network that encourages brands and their creative partners to include positive LGBT+ content in their mainstream communications. “The network is run entirely by volunteers, and not-for-profit,” explains CEO Mark Runacus. “We’re all privileged to work in an industry that is part of the fabric of society, and we believe we have a responsibility to use that medium for positive change.”

Statistically, the straight-gendered roles of current ads do not mirror the diverse society in which we live. A 2015 YouGov poll revealed that now 49% of 18-24 year don’t class themselves as 100% straight, and that 53% of over 60s agree that sexuality is on a scale. Stonewall recently released figures showing 8 in 10 trans students have been bullied and self-harmed, with almost half attempting suicide. Many cite a feeling of “confusion” or “out of placeness” with the world around them.

Thankfully, there are brands that have stimulated discussion. Way back in 1994 (let’s not forget same-sex marriage was only legalized in the US in 2014), Ikea was the first company to include a same-sex couple in a commercial that aired in the US. Their ad Dining Room shows a real gay couple choosing furniture for their home in an Ikea store — openly discussing how they first met. It received a huge backlash, despite being broadcast after 10PM, removing it from “family hour” programming. Ikea saw boycotts and its Long Island store was subjected to a bomb threat (that turned out to be unfounded). Nevertheless, the company remained defiant and the ad continued to run.

"In 1994, Ikea was the first company to include a same-sex couple in a commercial that aired in the US. It received a huge backlash. Ikea saw boycotts and its Long Island store was subjected to a bomb threat (that turned out to be unfounded). Nevertheless, the company remained defiant and the ad continued to run."

Fast-forward to 2016, when Lloyds TSB released posters featuring a same-sex proposal, with accompanying text that read, “He said yes.” Also included were a number of everyday happenings — a man dropping his daughter at school or an elderly lady attending a funeral. Titled For Your Next Step, the campaign saw Lloyds TSB ranked the top bank in the Stonewall Index, as well as the top LGBT employer in Scotland and Wales.

This year, alcohol brand Absolut celebrated 50 years since the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK with their Kiss with Pride. Shot by photographer Sam Bradley, the billboard adverts featured 72 same-sex couples from the 72 countries yet to follow suit —encouraging audiences to engage in the debate of ending bans on homosexuality.

Fashion brands have begun to respond too. In 2015, Calvin Klein released a commercial featuring same-sex couples, a "sociological experiment turned fashion campaign," that provided "an editorial narrative of how a modern generation uniquely approaches sexual connection in a digital world."

There is, however, a fine line to be towed — campaigns that run near Pride month risk feeling disingenuous. Some companies commodify LGBT+ culture, using its influence as a business tool. For some, it may be the net worth of the “pink dollar.” Others simply fail to communicate authenticity in their advertising; created in stuffy boardrooms and forgotten once the pride flags are packed away.

“When we’re talking to brands we use the "A" word a lot — authenticity,” says Mark. “The LGBT+ audience is progressive and discerning, and we see through cynical attempts to gay-wash. Any brand considering including LGBT+ content in their communications should first look within and talk to their LGBT+ colleagues. Ideally, they will have their own LGBT+ employee network. And that in turn must be part of a broader authentic inclusion and diversity strategy embracing BAME, social inclusion, disability, mental health, age, and gender diversity.”

"There is, however, a fine line to be towed — campaigns that run near Pride month risk feeling disingenuous. Some companies commodify LGBT+ culture, using its influence as a business tool. "

In August this year, international social activist and model Munroe Bergdorf was the first transgender model to be selected for a UK beauty campaign by L’Oréal that aimed to represent diversity under the reimagined slogan, “Because we’re all worth it.” Just days later, the brand dropped Munroe following an article by the Daily Mail that misquoted Bergdorf’s past comments on racial equality.

Talking with Munroe ahead of two keynote speeches at Oxford and Cambridge, she says of the issue, “When it comes to trans representation in the media, we are playing catch up. Visibility has increased but our stories are not being told ad-widely. For example, we're yet to see a transgender woman star in a romantic drama where her gender isn't an issue. I have faith that one day this will change.”

TV and film have a part to play as trendsetters in the media food chain. Where Hollywood goes, advertising follows suit. For 20 years, American-run GLAAD has released reports titled “Where We Are On TV,” tracking LGBT+ representation within entertainment. It’s a facility that is much needed from U.K. Government. And while GLAAD’s most recent report identifies a rise in LGBT+ characters played by LGBT+ actors, these still fall into outdated stereotypes.

President and CEO of GLAAD Sarah Kate Ellis notes: “When there are so few lesbian and bisexual women on television, the decision to kill these characters in droves (25 in the last year to be exact) sends a toxic message about the worth of queer female stories. Indeed, LGBTQ characters should be treated the same as their straight, cisgender counterparts by the rules of their series’ worlds.”

“This means having the same opportunities for romance, nuanced motivation, developed backstory, and the same odds of death. When the most repeated ending for a queer woman is violent death, producers must do better to question the reason for a character’s demise and what they are really communicating to the audience.”

"Consumers too have a role to play. PrideAM research shows that 60% of the general population believe it is important that people of different genders are accurately portrayed in advertising. Even more — 66% — feel the same of sexual orientation."

Worrisome is the lack of government involvement to encourage this positive perception of the LGBT+ community — particularly for the media-focused youth of today. Munroe adds, “It's only now that we're are hearing prominent political figures talking about transgender issues as a stand alone topic, rather than an afterthought of LGBT+ issues. The government really should be doing more to support transgender children, from support within schools to channeling money into charities like Mermaids who are operating on donation and volunteers alone.”

Consumers too have a role to play. PrideAM research shows that 60% of the general population believe it is important that people of different genders are accurately portrayed in advertising. Even more — 66% — feel the same of sexual orientation. PrideAM says, “People are more likely to buy from a brand that they feel accurately shows the diverse society in which we live. So vote with your feet and don’t buy from those brands that reinforce stereotypes.”

Brands have tiptoed around the status quo for too long and it is time to demand change and bravery of them. Mark highlights Australia and New Zealand’s ANZ bank as champion of this stance for their ad during Sydney’s Mardi Gras and Auckland Pride festivities. He says of the campaign, entitled Hold Tight, that, “It’s based on a human truth that my partner and I face every day. When we go out sometimes he’ll take my hand, but for whatever reason I’ll feel uncomfortable in that social setting and move it away. This film reminds me I will keep campaigning until I feel happy holding his hand everywhere and every day.” Since then, Australia has voted in favor of same-sex marriage.

While we wait for a society in which we can live and love as we chose, we can find hope in words offered by Munroe: “I have been there too so you are not alone. Find your tribe in real life. It'll help you to find the strength within yourself. Media visibility isn't everything, it's a good start, but strong, resilient community leaders are the ones who make a real difference.”