How Can Adland Better Represent the LGBT Community?
Advertising has always been about ideals. It sells the hope of better: an ideal life in a perfect world.
That’s why there is a strong – if not exclusive – focus on being the ideal person. We’re told we should aspire to be part of a devastatingly attractive heterosexual Caucasian couple within a nuclear family, possessing so much disposable income that we don’t know what to do with it – other than spend it on products that will make us even more attractive and successful, of course.
But a certain demographic has long been absent from the four corners of the TV ad break screen, billboard and printed page. Gay people.
Probably because gay people aren’t ideal for advertising – in many senses. Same sex couples don’t have gender defined binary roles with must-have products to suit. Their orientation is controversial in certain territories, so their inclusion could be commercially difficult. And it’s difficult to show a ‘housewife’ or ‘breadwinner’ figure in a 30 second ad if they’re both male, female or trans. Bluntly, advertising doesn’t target gay people because they’re an unknown entity. ‘How do we portray them?’, ‘what do we sell them?’ and ‘good Lord, let’s not offend anyone’ are deterring concerns.
Instead, gay people are shown in advertising in background or sideshow roles – roles that the general public are comfortable with. Gay people can raise a smile and add light relief to adverts with some sharp comments and a flourish of glitter – think Dale Winton adding some showbiz spangle in those ads for CashMyGold.co.uk. They’re welcome as the predictable gay best friend – Gok Wan and his hordes of Activia Bifidus addicts spring to mind.
Throughout Pride Season we see the annual influx of LGBT-centric advertising. Smirnoff has launched a brilliant campaign with ‘Homosexual, heterosexual, who-gives-a-sexual?’ The likes of Fortnum & Mason will surely raise a few eyebrows again with a well-engineered apostrophe in their print ads (‘Proud to be the queens’ grocer’). This acknowledgement is certainly positive – however it does seem to tiptoe around any real representation. Gay people are generally invisible. Of course there’s the lipstick lesbianism in fashion advertising that gets attention (the kind of homosexuality that is only turned on when a camera is around – think Britney and Madonna at the 2003 VMAs); just as the ongoing corporate trolling between J.C. Penney and One Million Moms creates sensationalistic headlines.
But wouldn’t it be better if gay people within adverts were invisible for the right reasons? Not in the sense of being missing, but unnoticed. Wouldn’t true equality come from representation that is subtle and implied, instead of gratuitous and overstated?
As a friend once suggested how good ‘it could be if we reached the stage where you see an ad for DFS, and instead of a man and a woman on a sofa with the kids you see two guys and their children. Nothing over the top, just the same kind of subtlety you see in straight TV families’.
Unfortunately this casual inference seems highly unlikely. Advertising inherently relies upon stereotypes as a means of communicating messages. In a world of five-second pre-rolls and 140-character Tweets, stereotypes and archetypes get the message across with familiarity and without confusion.
I know that this may be wishful thinking, but I can’t help longing for the day when gay people are truly invisible in advertising – no stereotypes or overplaying for effect. I suspect, however, that day will only come when men and women are no longer objectified within advertising to any extent.
And that could be many, many Prides away.
Jacob Lovewell is a Junior Planner at Kitcatt Nohr