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In 1994, Ikea received a tremendous amount of backlash when they released a television advert in the US featuring a gay couple. Nowadays, it is not particularly unusual to see gay people in advertising, and the backlash – while still prevalent – has dwindled. Every February, when LGBT history month rolls around, an increasing number of companies try to demonstrate their acceptance of LGBTQ+ folk: from coffee shops releasing rainbow-coloured takeaway cups, clothing retailers selling Pride-related merchandise, to brands incorporating rainbows into their logos. Now that we have gay couples in Lloyds Bank commercials and same-sex weddings appearing in adverts for Magnum ice creams, to what extent should we be celebrating this apparent progress in diversity within marketing?
The primary and most obvious benefit of including LGBTQ+ characters in advertising is a mainstream representation of the community. I realised that I was gay in my late teens, about ten years ago. Despite not being that long ago, I barely ever saw people like myself represented in the media. While I was okay with my sexuality, I still feared coming out – I didn’t know anyone who was openly gay. When the media that we consume daily is so overwhelmingly heterosexual, it is easy to feel so alone and different. This, in a nutshell, is why representation matters.
But just how good is this representation? Research by Channel 4 conducted last year found that the LGBT community features in only 3% of advertising, despite making up around 6% of the overall population. The adverts also failed to include much of the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community, with a focus on the ‘L’ and the ‘G’, while neglecting bisexuals, transgender folk, and the broad spectrum of people who make up the community. Furthermore, 60% of respondents felt that the adverts were tokenistic and based on stereotypes.
Tokenism is a frequent criticism of marketing that ostensibly celebrates diversity. Slapping a rainbow flag on your branding for one month a year is not enough to champion diversity. Last year, Brent Miller, Leader of LGBTQ+ communications at P&G, spoke to industry magazine Marketing Week about the rebranding of Fairy washing up liquid to ‘Fair’ during Pride month. Miller stated the importance of brands “authentically engaging” with the community to avoid so-called “rainbow-washing”. The marketing campaign that ran alongside the Fairy rebranding included social media videos encouraging open discussion of LGBTQ+ issues, a donation to the Albert Kennedy Trust, and the release of a report they had conducted into attitudes towards LGBTQ+ families. This followed a long history of P&G championing the community – they were one of the first to ensure the protection of their LGBTQ+ employees. P&G is an example of a company supporting the community while also trying to increase representation.
As great as it may be to see more adverts include same-sex couples, it is hard for the cynic in me not to question the brand’s true intentions. Is it an attempt to gain customers by virtue signalling? Are they just after the so-called ‘pink pound’ – the idea that gay people have more purchasing power than their straight counterparts? Or do they actually care about the community, in an age where young people increasingly expect private companies to influence policy change?
While the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in advertising may still be minimal, there is no doubt that it is on the rise. As acceptance of LGBTQ+ people grows, and as numbers of young people identifying as something other than heterosexual and cisgender surge, we can only hope that representation in advertising – and media as a whole – will also increase, while becoming more authentic. We are people with complex, diverse lives, not just a flag a brand can fly in the name of social responsibility.