Despite the strides made over the years, there’s still a noticeable gap in LGBTQ+ representation in advertising. Earlier this year, GLAAD’s Visibility Project highlighted that while the Super Bowl is one of the biggest days for advertisers, only a handful of Super Bowl ads featured LGBTQ+ people, and none featured LGBTQ+ storytelling.
This gap in representation comes at a time when the number of individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ continues to increase. A recent Gallup poll found that 7.2% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ+, more than double the percentage from just 10 years ago. That percentage is even higher – nearly 20% – for Gen Z compared to 11.2% of millennials and much lower percentages of older generations.
The growth mirrors the increase of acceptance of queer identities across the country. As social oppression of the LGBTQ+ community continues to decline, more people feel comfortable expressing their identities beyond the binary that previous generations were forced to conform to. Needless to say, the LGBTQ+ audience is swiftly growing, and that means their spending power is too – with an estimated $1.4 trillion in annual spending. DISQO and Do the WeRQ’s 2022 LGBTQ+ ad study put it best, “they’re a mass market still being treated as niche.”
While social oppression at large continues to decline, it’s important to note that the fight for queer inclusion and equality is far from over. In recent years, a record number of state laws have been passed that threaten LGBTQ+ rights — including anti-transgender legislation and so-called “religious freedom” bills that enable discrimination.
In a world where Gen Z is at the helm, it is more important than ever for companies to take a clear, public stance on queer inclusion. Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but it also makes business sense. Brands that are seen as champions of inclusion are more likely to resonate with younger consumers, and those that remain silent are at risk.
We’re in a rapidly changing culture where sexuality and gender expression are evolving, which begs the question, why are we still seeing large gaps in representative advertising?
LGBTQ+ Representation Should Be Mainstream
The industry does deserve some credit, as overall representation has improved (less than 7% of people didn’t recall seeing an LGBTQ+ advertisement in 2022 compared to nearly 20% in 2021). This indicates growing representation in ads. But if we’re talking about true equity here (and we are), there’s still a lot of work to do.
While recall was higher overall, people identifying as LGBTQ+ were more likely to recall ads seen in content specific to the community, and it’s a safe bet that a majority of that content was likely during Pride Month. This is because companies have learned that Millennials and Gen Z want brands to support a cause, but they still haven’t figured out how to elevate those causes to the mainstream. It’s easy to put a rainbow in your logo and donate to LGBTQ+ causes during Pride Month, but it takes more commitment to bring the community into your day-to-day work.
The LGBTQ+ community overwhelmingly agrees (81%) that brands have some or a lot of influence over LGBTQ+ and other DEIB issues, yet so many are leaving the community out of their largest conversations (we’re looking at you, Super Bowl advertisers). GLAAD found that exposure to LGBTQ+ people and narratives in the media is related to greater acceptance and support of LGBTQ+ people and issues. That’s right. Your brand quite literally has the power to influence social change.
The findings also showed that exposure to queer people in the media increases non-queer peoples’ comfort with the community daily. Every arrow points towards increasing representation, but it must be meaningful and done right to pack a punch and avoid a potential disaster.
It Starts With the Creators
Over the years, a lot of brands have got it wrong as they tried to bring diversity into their work. But in an industry that is largely heterosexual (92.6% according to ANA), it’s really not a huge surprise. Even when companies are committed to DEIB, unconscious biases can still influence decision-making and ultimately result in harmful stereotyping in advertisements. While overall diversity in advertising is increasing, there still seems to be a lack of LGBTQ+ individuals in the places where decisions are being made. The people developing the work have to reflect the audiences advertisers are trying to reach.
We know all too well what happens to brands that don’t work with LGBTQ+ creators. Target comes to mind for its 2021 Pride collection, which received extensive backlash for being out of touch. From shirts with pronouns on ‘Hi My Name Is’ stickers to questionable skirts in every color of the rainbow, it’s no wonder the community was upset.
After learning the hard way, Target took a different approach with its 2022 campaign. Instead of throwing rainbows on t-shirts and calling it good, the company hired a group of seven LGBTQ+ artists to design apparel for its Pride collection that people in the community actually wanted to wear. While it’s admirable that Target sought to right its wrongs, the 2021 disaster could have been prevented entirely with the right people at the table.
When LGBTQ+ individuals are in the room, there’s someone to gut-check the work. Someone to speak up when something feels wrong and correct it before it ever makes its way into the world.
It’s a Continued Effort to Be Inclusive
The efforts can’t just end at hiring and storytelling, however. When you take a step back and look at the community as a whole, it’s evident there’s so much more to be done as a society. A study from the Center for American Progress found that more than one in three LGBTQ+ adults reported facing some kind of discrimination in the year prior to the study. Half reported experiencing workplace discrimination or harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Not to mention the hundreds of legislative bills across the country seeking to eliminate LGBTQ+ rights in some way or another.
Positive social change is more than a couple of ads and a few more people getting the recognition they deserve. Companies have to opt into making a difference in everything they do, from donating to LGBTQ+ causes, actively speaking out against harmful legislation, creating a safe space for queer individuals, and so much more, because without lifting the entire community up, most will remain in positions of oppression, without a chance to ever even try for a seat at the metaphorical table.
There are encouraging signs of progress in the industry, but as we drive headlong into a world where more and more individuals identify beyond the binary, we have to make changes that leave a bigger impact.
Aside from the $1.4 trillion brands could be leaving behind, we have a moral obligation as advertisers to accurately reflect the world we live in, promote equity in all of our actions, and push all our consumers to do the same.