In recent years, representation in advertising of the LGBTQ+ community has increased, but there is still a long way to go until true inclusiveness is achieved. The recent success of Netflix’s Heartstopper – the coming-of-age story about two schoolboys’ love and friendships – is a refreshing change from the kind of LGBTQ+ representation we have seen in the past, and at our marketing agency, Monumental, we believe brands can learn a lot from the groundbreaking series.
The UK’s LGBTQ+ economy is estimated to be worth £6 billion per year, yet it still sometimes feels that brands are missing the mark when it comes to accurately communicating and making the LGBTQ+ community feel connected to their brand. In fact, according to research commissioned by Gay Times and Karmarama, a worrying 72 per cent of the LGBTQ+ community think the way they are presented in advertising is tokenistic.
While I appreciate the effort being made by brands to reach our community (let’s face it, it’s better than being sidelined and ignored) there is a long way to go and there are several pitfalls each advert I see seems to fall into.
Bullying and mental health
It often feels like the negative sides of being gay, such as bullying, suffering with poor mental health and stereotyping can be all that’s shown, before we’re presented with a convenient happy ending.
But why is it always the negative that makes the cut? I believe it’s because that’s the easy option. Minorities are often depicted in a way that shows their fight for equality and more treacherous journeys to get to the same stages in their life as their heterosexual counterparts.
Everyone’s journey and pain points are valid and should definitely be discussed, showcased and amplified, but, this isn’t the be-all and end-all of being LGBTQ+. Advertising and content can engage, educate and excite so the more emotive stories that try to empathise with the community definitely have a place…but not always. The thing that I often wonder is whether LGBTQ+ content – particularly in advertising – that I’ve seen is there to engage the LGBTQ+ community or to educate straight people. Both approaches are valid, but brands must understand the huge difference between the two: one is FOR the LGBTQ+ community and one is TO the LGBTQ+ community.
Hope and humour
Bullying was a big theme in Heartstopper, yet the series was cleverly set after protagonist Charlie’s difficult year, showing him recovering and finding himself. By doing this, the story is showing that even though the severe bullying has stopped and Charlie has come out, not all his problems have magically disappeared. However, there is hope, humour and happiness in his life.
Recent adverts inspired by John Lewis’ tearjerkers can learn from this when storyboarding an idea – emotion can be drawn from hope.
Most mainstream advertising relies on engaging the audience through aspiration. Think of perfume ads: most of them don’t really make sense but they depict an aspirational version of a situation that entices the audience to make the connection that by having the product one can lead this kind of lifestyle. LGBTQ+ content can also do just that, which is where Heartstopper and Schitt’s Creek succeeded in engaging diverse audiences. Dan Levy, writer of Schitt’s Creek, commented that the show casts a light on “what the world could be like”. Brands can do just this: what would the world be like when you take the negative stuff out?
This seems to be one of the most common mistakes seen when, in an advert which calls for a family setting, the heterosexual couple are simply replaced with a gay or lesbian couple (very rarely a trans person, btw) and the advertising executives seem to clap their hands together at ticking a big, fat, gay box.
Yes, LGBTQ+ can have children but not ALL same-sex couples have or want them!
In fact, there are approximately 200,000 same-sex families in the UK, comprising roughly 15% of the LGB population. Therefore, creating content that shows heteronormative family settings and using same-sex protagonists is relatable to a small minority of our community.
This sort of content can be described as heteronormative because it usually features what we associate as a “straight marriage” with children. I’ve never seen content depicting more unique LGB family settings; for example I have friends who have gone down the surrogacy route and the surrogate is still involved in the family. I’m also aware of families with bisexual parents where one of the parents may have had a heterosexual relationship which produced a child but now has a same-sex partner and so on. We cannot assume LGB family dynamics will be the same as those experienced by our straight friends.
There is another way
Most brands have relied on aspirational content to help market their products and this heteronormative compromise seems to be their answer. What Heartstopper got right was showing a sweet, touching love story that leaves people wanting that or hoping it will happen to them.
So keep it authentic rather than heteronormative. Create aspirational content for people to want to engage with by reflecting what they experience in their own relationships.
Over-sexualisation and stereotyping
This happens less in advertising and brands but it is not unheard of: we’ve all seen ads that show same-sex couples kissing or in intimate settings.
The same question comes up here: is this to engage the LGBTQ+ community or shock the heterosexual one? Obviously, I’m a big believer in showing intimacy between same-sex couples as a way to normalise this in the mainstream. When I was Mr Gay Scotland, my whole campaign was based on desensitising the mainstream so that same-sex affection was fully accepted.
That being said, there is SO much more to LGBTQ+ culture than this. As a cisgendered gay man I can’t speak for everyone but gay culture alone is so vast, it runs deep in the community and is based on love, happiness and fun.
Drag is a good example but, although it’s part of our culture that has broken into the mainstream, it is one tiny portion of everything else that goes on. Tapping into this culture would not only engage the community that’s part of it but it would also educate other communities and may even educate younger LGB audiences that may feel the current offering isn’t quite for them.
Take for example my experience: when I was growing up I’d watch Ugly Betty and High School Musical. In both, the supposed gay characters are never “outed” as such and they rely on the audience to make their assumptions and come to their own conclusions. Aside from this, both of these characters are very stereotypical and tokenistic: one is an effeminate bitchy personal assistant and the other is also an effeminate character, wearing pink, starting dramas and pursuing musical theatre. I didn’t identify with either of these characters because they’re nothing like me. This left me feeling that maybe I wasn’t part of the community, that I didn’t fit in with the gays as much as I didn’t fit in with the straights.
Our rich culture
LGBTQ+ content has an opportunity to engage younger audiences in ways that show the breadth of our community, break stereotypes and take the focus off the shocking “what happens in the bedroom”. Dig deeper into our rich LGBTQ+ culture and history, be aspirational and, most importantly, authentic.