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LGBTQ in advertising: are brands still getting it wrong?


Every June when Pride Month* comes around, it’s interesting to see how brands approach the LGBTQ community in their advertising and campaigns. More and more companies are seeing Pride as a marketing opportunity – for better or worse – but so often they get it wrong with their messaging and sentiment. What are brands doing when it comes to the rest of the year, too? Are things getting better?

Pride 2017

Firstly, a quick look back at last year and one of the UK’s biggest LGBTQ events: Pride in London. What a fiasco that was. The organisers chose some impressively ill-judged messages and sentiments to throw around their social media, which naturally picked up plenty of backlash from the community. Pride in London decided to run a marketing campaign for the event that exclusively featured the views of straight cisgender people. It went from erasing the point of view of queer people, to trivialising their lives, and even using the word gay as a pejorative. Here are just a few choice examples:

Pride in London example

A new demographic

If Pride itself can get it so wrong, the chances for brands to make mistakes seems high.

More and more brands are seeing the LGBTQ community as a legitimate marketing demographic, from casually featuring LGBTQ people in their ads to making overt statements of support for Pride events, charities, campaigns, or other political issues. How effective this is, and whether it represents positive progress or not, is an ongoing debate.

As in the London example above, last year seemed particularly troublesome for brands attempting to be supportive of Pride and the LGBTQ community.

KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) produced an ad intended to support Amsterdam Pride, tweeting an image showing a series of airline safety belt buckles in rainbow colours.

KLM - Pride example

While it’s a positive sentiment, the problem with the image is immediately obvious: only two out of three of these combinations are actually functional, while the other one would result in an unusable and very unsafe seatbelt arrangement. It may only be a metaphor, but the meaning fell apart so easily under scrutiny that it did nothing but fuel comments from the bigots and homophobes.

Skittles made their own mark by producing special black and white edition packets both in 2017 and 2016, with the message that the rainbow belongs to Pride. It was a clever idea that gained a lot of coverage, and while it could definitely be seen as a positive message overall, it didn’t actually draw attention to any local Pride events, and only a couple of pence from each sale went to LGBTQ charities and causes.

Skittles - Pride example

Deliveroo joined in by advertising food covered in glitter.

And Apple sold a Pride edition strap for its smartwatches, retailing at £50.

Pride has this effect on brands every year. While I can reliably assure you that LGBTQ people exist throughout the year, most companies only make the effort for a few weeks in summer. Much like Christmas or the World Cup, it’s seen as a seasonal campaign. But what happens when brands step outside of the Pride bubble?

Visibility and support

Outside of Pride, there are brands who seek to be more LGBTQ inclusive in their everyday messaging and advertising, or even directly support LGBTQ groups, campaigns, and charities as part of their ongoing plans. When done thoughtfully and appropriately, both these approaches can have a huge impact.

Smirnoff decided to tackle a lack of understanding in society with their campaign: We’re Open. They discovered that society at large has little or no understanding of what non-binary gender identity is, despite 12% of millennials identifying as transgender or gender non-conforming. The tagline ‘labels are for bottles, not people’ appears in TV ads, their social feeds and elsewhere, along with videos featuring trans musicians, models, and artists to promote the potential of nightlife to be a positive and inclusive force when it comes to gender identity.

Rowse Honey recently featured LGBTQ people in their advertising in a more light-hearted manner, featuring three gay bears in a witty play on the classic Goldilocks story. The warm and positive tone nicely fitted with Rowse’s branding and provided some much-needed casual LGBTQ visibility in an everyday setting.

Coca-Cola ran a TV ad featuring a brother and sister fighting for the chance to flirt with an attractive male pool cleaner (though their mum got there first). It was a funny and memorable ad that simply and effortlessly included LGBTQ people and represented an important step in visibility from one of the worlds’ biggest brands.

Toyota recently ran a campaign entitled Go Your Own Way for their Aygo model, featuring four drag queens from around the UK. Each was given creative control over a photoshoot with one of the cars, making use of their own style and drag aesthetics. The brand also created videos and even an art installation as part of the campaign. It was a great showcase for the creative powerhouse that is the UK drag community, and a smart move for Toyota to capitalise on the newly mainstream popularity of drag thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Beyond Pride

Slapping a rainbow on something and calling yourself inclusive is easy, and many brands are happy to take this approach. But as we can see, the marketing industry in general is slowly getting better with how it approaches the LGBTQ community…

‘It’s very easy to tell a compelling story and provide lip service to extremely important matters. But if you don’t back that up with some significant action, it becomes a little meaningless’
Sam Salameh, Smirnoff

I think this sentiment is most relevant around this time of year when the Pride bandwagon is in full swing. Brands who want to get involved need to do more than just cover their products with rainbow flags and glitter for a few weeks. The real work is in creating more visibility for LGBTQ people, and actually supporting LGBTQ causes outside of Pride season.

*Pride Month is officially and unofficially recognised in various countries around the world. It’s primarily recognised in the US, though sadly has lost official status since Trump assumed the presidency. Pride events in the US take place all through the month, though most Pride events in Europe happen in July, August, and September.

Want to know more about creating fantastic, inclusive content all year round? Our Content & Communications team can help.

Photo: Toyota Aygo #goyourownway campaign

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