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Pride and Prejudice 2017

The Dos And Don’ts Of LGBT-inclusive Advertising

Fewer than 1% of the people featured in British advertising are LGBT. Of all the ads that ran globally in 2016, only 47 were LGBT-inclusive. Brands have been talking up the pink pound for years now, but when it comes to communications, few are walking the walk. And it’s not just LGBT people who want to see more diversity in advertising: the majority of millennials expect certain values from the brands with which they interact.

With trust in banks, government and the press eroding, young consumers are looking more frequently to brands to take a progressive position on social issues. They want to put their money where they feel it will do the most good, and they want to deal with companies that represent their values. Above all, that means equality and inclusion—for women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and the LGBT community. These are non-negotiable criteria against which all brands are now being judged.

According to research from Cone Communications and Ebiquity, 90% of consumers are willing to boycott a brand if they feel it doesn’t have the right principles. This also goes the other way: 88% of consumers are more loyal to companies that support social issues, and Lloyds’ “Reflecting Modern Britain” report states that 65% of consumers would respond favourably to a brand that promoted diversity.

More and more brands are recognising the benefit in reaching out to gay consumers in their storytelling and normalising LGBT diversity for wider audiences. Many people still find it uncommon to see themselves, their relationships or their families represented on TV or in print. Visibility in advertising goes beyond feeling “seen” by brands; it reaffirms your sense of having a place in society.

One standout campaign in 2016 was for Clean & Clear. Featuring trans teen Jazz Jennings, it followed the same arc as any other teenage skincare ad, focusing on Jazz’s journey towards accepting and loving herself. It was also a refreshingly positive, optimistic portrayal of a young transgender person in the media. The importance of this cannot be overstated at a time when trans people are being persecuted and even killed.

Ads that tell LGBT stories are still being hailed as “brave” and “bold” simply because they are so scarce. The brands that get it right are rarer still. While a growing number of companies are doing more to embrace their LGBT consumers, it’s important that they do so in a way that isn’t tokenistic or perceived as pandering. Here are some simple dos and don’ts.

DO be consistent. Build a meaningful relationship with the community and reflect that in your policies. If you pull an LGBT-friendly ad from a conservative region, customers will see you as a fair-weather ally and call you out on it.

DON’T resort to stereotypes. Relying on worn tropes is lazy at best and harmful at worst. It also shows you don’t know much about the people you’re trying to reach.

DO include real people. When you engage with the LGBT community, it has to come from an authentic place. Ads by Airbnb and Clean & Clear show that viewers respond well to personal, real-life stories.

DON’T make “gay” the punchline. Using humour in ads is a great way to build an instant emotional connection. But ask yourself: who is the joke on here?

DO promote acceptance. Including LGBT people in your advertising is the first step. Conveying a positive and progressive message is the next.

DON’T shoehorn your brand into conversations where it’s not relevant. Plastering a rainbow flag on your social media for Pride Month is nice, but if that’s all you’re doing to support LGBT diversity, it’s kind of pointless.

It’s also worth noting the relative lack of diversity in supposedly diverse communications. We don’t tend to see many LGBT people in advertising, but when we do, they are usually white, affluent, conventionally attractive cisgender men. (79% of respondents in the Lloyds study felt that gay women were under-represented in advertising.)

That figures: as spokespeople, ambassadors and agents of change, gay white men largely still enjoy the kind of privilege that means their voices are more likely to be heard than that of somebody who is a woman, or black or trans.

LGBT representation in advertising still has a long way to go, and the next big challenge facing advertisers is how to begin to address this intersectionality. How can we tell more nuanced stories that speak to a greater variety of identities when, as an industry, we are still struggling to include women and people of colour? Handsome, smiling couples and rainbow flags are a nice start, but plenty of work remains.

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