The Importance of Authentic 2SLGBTQ+ Representation in Advertising

“We want to highlight real people in these ads.”

It’s something we hear in our jobs every day in this industry. How do we create ads and creative campaigns where people see themselves so they’re more likely to buy, click, subscribe, or do whatever else we’re hoping they’ll do? 

Because that’s the thing. We know when people see themselves in media, whether it’s on TV, in a movie, on a billboard, or in print ads, they feel more connected to the message. They feel a sense of community knowing they’re being invited into that specific space. 

We know that representation matters. 

The history of 2SLGBTQ+ representation in the media isn’t as robust as we’d like it to be. It’s been less than 30 years since the first TV commercial featuring a gay couple has aired, and to this day we still see it as novel when someone from the queer community is highlighted in an advertising campaign. But things are changing for the better, and it’s been great to see. 

Let’s take a look at some of the milestones in queer advertising history, and why it’s important to be authentic in your 2SLGBTQ+ representation year round.

The first 2SLGBTQ+ representation in mainstream advertising

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw subtle 2SLGBTQ+ representation in print advertising, through Absolut Vodka’s ad featuring artwork by gay artist Keith Haring, or Subaru’s series of ads featuring their “it’s not a choice, it’s the way we’re built” tagline. But nods to 2SLGBTQ+ culture, which were referred to as “gay window shopping,” in mainstream media were just that—nods. There was no direct mention of queer culture in the ads, and you could only pick up on the references if you were in the know. Yes, it was progress, having the community be recognized, albeit subtly, but it still wasn’t enough. 

It wasn’t until 1994 that a major brand took what, at the time, was seen as a risky leap.

IKEA’s “Dining Room” spot was the first television commercial in America to feature an openly gay couple. There were no nods. There was no room for ambiguity. It was two men shopping for a dining room table, openly discussing their romantic relationship on camera and how buying a table with a leaf in it is a major commitment for them (and they’re right. A leaf? That’s practically marriage!). 

Though this all may seem insignificant to us today considering how normal it is to see same-sex couples on our screens, in 1994—before shows like Will & Grace or Sex and the City had aired—seeing a gay couple on television who weren’t being used as a punchline was groundbreaking. The ad received backlash from Christian community groups, but IKEA didn’t back down, refusing to pull the ad despite threats of boycott. It was one of the first times a major brand took a stand to support the 2SLGBTQ+ community, opening the floodgate for other brands to follow in their footsteps. 

2SLGBTQ+ representation in today’s media and why representation matters year round — not just during Pride Month

It’s important to remember that 1994 wasn’t long ago, though the quality of video may make us feel like it was centuries in the past. In less than 30 years, we’ve seen an influx of representation to the point where seeing a same-sex couple in an ad no longer makes us say “Oh, wow! That’s rare!” In fact, in a study conducted by DISQO and Do the WeRQ, only less than 7% of people couldn’t recall seeing an advertisement featuring the 2SLGBTQ+ community.

Now, it’s not unusual to see two women sharing a meal with their kids at a new restaurant, or two men holding hands as they walk down the street in the latest footwear. But while 2SLGBTQ+ representation is indeed becoming more and more common, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done. 

Many ads featuring queer couples still fall into a “safe” category of advertising, which is to say two white gay men. It’s considered the most acceptable version of queer representation as it’s the one people are most used to seeing, but the 2SLGBTQ+ community is so widespread and diverse, to not highlight all the different facets of people who fall under the umbrella begins to feel exclusionary in itself.

The struggle, however, is how do you say you want better representation without discounting what already exists? Of course we want queer representation in advertising whenever possible. At this rate, it should be as second-natured as breathing. But it needs to be authentic. Being pandered to or used as a gimmick is not the same as being represented and seen. Harmful stereotypes in mainstream media serve as a way for companies to say “See? We’ve ticked the box!” 

But the queer community is not just a box to be ticked in the month of June. We are a unique, diverse group of people who deserve to see ourselves in advertising just like any other person. Why should we only get to see ourselves in the media one month out of the year? Why should we only be thought of when it serves to make companies more money? When will seeing a queer couple in advertising stop being a talking point and start being the same as anyone else?

Representation is a 365-day commitment. 

By the numbers

  • 1 million Canadians identify as being part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community (source)
  • $3.7 trillion is a conservative estimate of the global 2SLGBTQ+ buying power (source)
  • 72% of consumers believe brands have an influence on 2SLGBTQ+ rights (source)
  • 85% of consumers consider a brand’s social and political activities when making purchases (source)
  • 52% of consumers believe 2SLGBTQ+ ads are authentic (source)
  • 70% of Gen Zers believe it’s important for content to be made inclusively (source)

Moving forward 

Authentic, deliberate, and compassionate representation is important, as queer people of all generations look to see themselves in the media they consume. The progress we’ve made is substantial, but there’s still so much more road to travel. 

So how do we take the first step? In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of GLAAD, spoke about the importance of bringing 2SLGBTQ+ experts to the table early when it comes to marketing and advertising.

“Way too often we are called in to cosign an idea that’s fully baked only to flag areas of harm or stereotyping,” she said.

Engage with the community, encourage coworkers who are part of the queer community to share their ideas, and most importantly, let those same co-workers know they’re in a place without judgement. 

The good news is, things are changing for the better. And the best is surely yet to come.