Adverts are a significant part of our lives. They’re difficult not to stumble upon, as they’re crafted to grab attention with their meticulously chosen colours, images and slogans. It is hard to imagine a world without ads, but have they always represented society accurately? For those who identify as LGBTQ+, it hasn’t always been like this.
According to an article by Ad Week, the first ad portraying a gay couple was released 24 years ago, in 1994, for the international furniture company, Ikea. At the time, an avalanche of controversy was sparked, due to the ‘theme’ of the advert, which completely reversed the norm of what a couple should look like and behave.
Customers boycotted Ikea stores and the ad was only allowed to air after 10:00pm as the views of the 90s deemed the ad as “scandalous” and “outrageous”. Despite all the controversy, the ad was extremely important for the understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals — it showed the couple living a mundane, normal life, shopping for a dining table. It humanised a fraction of society that for so long had been dehumanised.
As reported by Buzzfeed, Ellen Carton, who was at the time the New York Executive Director of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), told the Los Angeles Times that the ad portrayed: “an aspect of gay life that people never see: our daily lives. Instead of showing gays and lesbians marching at gay rights rallies or suffering from AIDS, the Ikea ad humanises us. The importance of that cannot be overstated.”
Fast forward 20 years and a lot has changed as far as Queer representation in advertising goes, brands no longer run away from portraying Queer identities, but instead, strive to diversify their marketing to full measure. What was once was seen as “outrageous” is now seen as well-thought out, diverse marketing — something to aspire to.
Nonetheless, the sudden interest of brands to portray LGBTQ+ identities can be seen as a double-edged sword: although targeting LGBTQ+ people in marketing campaigns normalises and humanise these identities, brands also profit greatly from doing so, as the LGBTQ+ community holds substantial purchasing power.
At times, it is hard to assess whether brands craft ads or products that cater to Queer identities due to their pro-LGBTQ+ views or that they’re aware they’ll profit from portraying said identities.According to research by We are Family Magazine, “an estimated £70 billion pink pounds are earned and spent by LGBT people in the UK every year.”
This phenomenon is known in the UK as the ‘Pink Pound Industry’ — the term which encapsulates the buying power of the LGBTQ+ community, and which was first used in British media throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
A BBC News piece in 1998, on the Pink Pound Industry, stated that: “(…) as society has relaxed the laws on homosexual life, more people are prepared to identify as being part of that class — and with that, of course, companies are more easily able to target that sector.”
Pride AM is the world’s first LGBTQ+ organisation for people working in advertising and marketing. The organisation aims to “remove LGBT+ prejudice from the workplace and promote positive LGBT+ role models”, whilst also advocating for “fair and accurate representation of LGBT+ people in communications.”
Mark Runacus, the president of Pride AM told us that advertising should be considered “an extremely important part of the fabric of society”, playing a huge part in creating positive LGBTQ+ role models. He also explained how underrepresented the minority still is, which greatly hinders the creation of healthy LGBTQ+ narratives and role models within the media. Pride AM has been trying to tackle this prominent gap.
“There is significant underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ lifestyles in mainstream advertising. By encouraging brands to include more positive LGBTQ+ images then we will create more positive role models, and it will help everybody be their authentic selves,” says Runacus.The organisation provides free ‘role-model training’ in which any brand or creative media agency is apt to participate. These training sessions aim to improve the participants’ grasp of ‘healthy’ LGBTQ+ representation and better their authenticity; whilst also helping to promote, “completely prejudice-free creative working environments”.
These workshops are of important as brands don’t always get it right when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ people. Some companies don’t conduct prior research on the people they’re attempting to cater for, and ultimately, end up not shining a positive light to the community.
As a result, the organisation also tends to work as a watchdog for unhealthy representation: “We will continue to quietly nudge brands when they do attempt LGBTQ+ representation but in our opinion, they don’t quite get it right. The majority of the time we do believe that LGBTQ+ representation is well-intentioned but we’ve all got a lot to learn, including us,” Runacus told us.
For instance, retail giant Primark came under fire in 2018 for promoting a ‘Pride Merchandise’ range in light of the many Pride events that were occurring across the globe at the time. Although the range was produced in partnership with LGBTQ+ Charity Stonewall, which received 20% of the proceeds, PinkNews reported that the products were manufactured in countries with extremely archaic and dangerous laws regarding LGBTQ+ people, such as China, Turkey and Myanmar.
In a statement for the publication, Stonewall stated: “When Primark decided to launch a summer Pride range we were proud and pleased that they approached us about a partnership. They want to work with us to help embed long-term, generational change for LGBT people in the UK and internationally.”
On another occasion, freelance writer Rebecca Nicholson, in a piece for The Guardian, regarding brands promoting Pride Month campaigns, said seeing brands catering LGBTQ+ individuals made her feel “queasy”.
“Whenever I see a big brand adopting the rainbow as a sign of its social conscience, I instinctively think, that was never the point of that flag. When I see Skittles releasing a bag of plain white “lentils”, as they appear to be called, with the tagline “because only one Rainbow matters this Pride”, my first reaction is to think: “This is a marketing gimmick that ensures Skittles are in the news during Pride month,” she wrote.
International candy brand, Skittles, owned by Mars, Inc, advertised a white limited-edition of their usual rainbow-coloured candy, in light of Pride Month celebrations, to drive attention to the cause.
But, could poor quality representation of the LGBTQ+ community still contribute to the progress of society?
Valentin Crisan, an advertising student at the London College of Communication, who identifies as gay, thinks so: “I think that some companies that might do it (LGBTQ+ marketing) for the wrong reasons are still contributing, because you might have a little kid that just happens to walk past (an LGBTQ+ advert), that thinks ‘oh, being me is not so bad’, or ‘I’m normal’, […] any sort of representation, as long as it’s accurate, is good.”
When asked about what his ‘perfect’ LGBTQ+ ad would look like, he emphasised the word ‘authenticity’: “What makes advertising authentic is when you let the subject tell their own story rather than having a brand trying to coordinate everything and trying to push the story in what direction they think it should go. There’s a lot of ads that feel staged, so I think my perfect ad would have to be something really political, that gives a platform to someone who actually has something to say, someone, you wouldn’t see on any poster,” says Crisan
Many agree that authenticity is key when it comes to representing LGBTQ+ people, so displaying LGBTQ+ allusive images, such as the Pride flag or rainbows during Pride Month and then calling it a day, isn’t enough, and LGBTQ+ people are well aware of which brands lack/don’t lack authenticity.
“There is significant underrepresentation of LGBTQ+ lifestyles in mainstream advertising.”
According to a report by Fast Company: “a recent study by INTO, Grindr’s digital magazine and research firm Brand innovators found out that only 15.6% of the more than 4,100 LGBTQ respondents said they feel “very positively” toward companies that roll out Pride-themed ad campaigns and then leave it at that for the rest of the year. By contrast, over 40% said they feel very positively toward advertisers who work LGBTQ themes into their branding ‘regularly or continually.'”
This links with the countless Pride parades events that happen yearly across the country — without the sponsorship of brands, these events cannot be held, as most Pride event organisers operate as either charities or non-profit organisations“Sponsors are the lifeline of a Pride event. Whilst it shows the community they operate in that they are supportive of inclusivity and diversity, it also massively helps Pride events who operate as either charities/non-profit organisations,” according to Stephen Ireland, communications coordinator of the UK Pride organisers network, who are “an online community for all Pride Organisers in the UK.”
“There are a number of Pride events that also charge, this is location dependent, but again, sponsors mean an upfront revenue which is a significant help.” Ireland says.
Although Pride events need sponsors to survive, many suggest these events have transformed into a ‘branded holiday’, rather than an event with strong political connotations.
In a piece for The Vox, journalist Alex Abad-Santos argued that brands rely heavily on ‘slacktivism’ to create a sense of ‘awareness’, that doesn’t necessarily exist. “So money going to LGBTQ charities is a good thing, right? In the abstract, yes, but taken in aggregate, this consumerist donation structure creates a context of so-called ‘slacktivism’, giving brands and consumers alike a low-effort way to support social and political causes.” he said.
Choosing who to accept as a sponsor isn’t an easy task. Pride events’ organisers have to be meticulous, making sure the brands are the right fit. “As Pride organisers, we’re always conscious about who we do allow to sponsor us and, of course, some due diligence has to be carried out ensuring that the company has policies in place or is at least working with us to improve their way of working. You’d hate to be promoting something that incites hate or doesn’t necessarily have a cultural fit,” Ireland explains.
Ireland says that brands that haven’t necessarily been explicit in their LGBTQ+ representation should not automatically be excluded from Pride events, as it might be beneficial for the brand to learn from their mistakes. After all, changing people’s views is the core essence of Pride.
“By encouraging brands to include more positive LGBTQ+ images then we will create more positive role models, and it will help everybody be their authentic selves.”
“Many Pride organisations have a constitution that would say they wouldn’t work with some types of company for instance companies that incite testing on animals or have published anti LGBT+ policies. Never say never though, Pride, after all, is about changing peoples perceptions, if companies are willing to work with their local Pride they may benefit a great deal out of it,” he concludes.
The ongoing debate on representation sparks extremely important discourse around what should be deemed acceptable or not in LGBTQ+ geared advertising. In a world where LGBTQ+ people aren’t yet fully accepted and still discriminated against, it is crucial to start portraying LGBTQ+ people leading healthy, fulfilling lives in the media, without falling into the trap of creating ‘tokenistic’ and expectable content. With organisations such as Pride AM setting the example and a community that doesn’t conform, change is, hopefully, on the way.
“I’m still staggered that there is prejudice in this world. My partner and I have been together for 18 years and I don’t always feel comfortable showing signs of affection when I’m with him. Our work will be done when l feel completely free and easy to hold his hand when I walk down the street. Setting positive role models will be a huge help,” concludes Mark Runacus.