Today is the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which served as a catalyst for the LGBTQ+ rights movement. When police raided a gay bar in New York City on June 28, 1969, the incident ignited protests around the country in the push for equal rights.
Now 54 years later, the culture war over the rights of gay and transgender people is growing. While progress has been made, such as the Supreme Court ruling in 2020 that a 1964 civil rights law protects LGBTQ+ workers from discrimination and the landmark 2015 SCOTUS decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, that legalized gay marriage in all 50 states, this year a record-breaking 491 bills have been rated as anti-LGBTQ by the American Civil Liberties Union. These bills range from banning discussions of the LGBTQ+ community in classrooms to limiting trans people from being able to update their gender on their IDs. Brands showing support for the LGBTQ+ community, such as Disney, Target, and Bud Light, have been caught in the crossfire of increased polarization as the U.S. gets closer to the 2024 presidential election.
Yet this increasing pushback does not represent the majority of Americans. “Although there’s a lot of noise, the general American public is in favor of the LGBTQ community across many factors—equal rights, the right to live our lives freely, and even comfort seeing us in advertisements,” says Anna Wilgan, vice president of marketing for Kantar, a data, insights and consulting company. “So we do know that the attacks on business that are happening are led by a very small but vocal handful of extremists, and it is not representative of the U.S. population.”
In fact, 91% of non-LGBTQ people believe LGBTQ people should have the freedom to live their lives and not be discriminated against, and 75% of non-LGBTQ people are comfortable seeing LGBTQ people in ads, found GLAAD’s 2023 Accelerating Acceptance study, which used a national sample of 2,533 U.S. adults ages 18 or over.
Representation and visibility helps drive acceptance, and brands can help accelerate change—if they stand strong in their values when those values represent a majority of their customer base, rather than backpedal when facing pushback. “What we’re seeing [with brands] is the intention may be good, but the execution sometimes goes wrong and then it creates the inverse of the intended effect—both with people in the LGBTQ community and not,” says Wilgan. “If [brands are] going to commit to doing the work, it’s critical to be thoughtful about your execution, to really understand what the opportunity is, and to have a response to any potential backlash. We’re extremely hopeful that more brands will continue doing this work and remember that we can create change together, even if it feels scary at times.”
Target, a retailer with a long-standing PRIDE collection, is one recent example of a brand whose execution of LGBTQ marketing was not fully prepared for the backlash they faced. After misinformation spread on social media that Target’s trans-inclusive swimwear line was designed for kids (the claims were false as the line was available only in adult sizes), Target pulled some items from their PRIDE collection. Target announced that their decision stemmed from threats from angry conservations that were “impacting our team members’ sense of safety and well-being while at work.” The pulling of PRIDE items also disappointed many members of the LGBTQ community, who felt the retailer was wavering on their support and giving in to intimidation.
“What happened in the case of Target, Bud Light, and in a few other instances is that [brands] let themselves be bullied by a loud minority,” says Meghan Bartley, director of agencies, brands, and engagement at The GLAAD Media Institute, a non-profit focused on LGBTQ advocacy. “As the bullying continued, neither the LGBTQ community nor broader groups of Americans really were satisfied by that response. What we’re asking of brands in this moment of backlash is to push for inclusion now and beyond PRIDE month. The more that people are loud about our inclusion, the more that brands have to stand up and stand strong when they’re attacked for that inclusion. Because standing with our community is not only morally right, but it is absolutely correct for brands and their bottom lines.”
GLAAD and Kantar just launched the Advertising Visibility Index at Cannes Lions 2023, a new annual report on the state of LGBTQ representation in advertising and marketing. The report finds that nearly 80% of non-LGBTQ+ consumers think it’s important for brands to strive for positive, multi-dimensional, and human representation when including LGBTQ+ people in advertising or content. Yet the Index also finds there is a lack of representation in advertisements: LGBTQ people received only 1.42% of screen time on national television from the top ten largest advertisers.
“We know that increasing visibility can really push back against what’s currently happening in the culture during this critical time when we have over 500 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in the U.S. and increased threats of violence to LGBTQ spaces and venues,” says Bartley.
The notion of brands using advertisements to reach diverse audiences, as well as brands receiving pushback, is nothing new. Yet if a brand is able to portray nuanced characters and stories that are universal to being human—as well as have a plan in place for how to react to potential criticism—they can speak to a broader consumer base and help drive greater acceptance.
An example of a brand who did this well was Honeymaid back in 2014 when they released their “This Is Wholesome” campaign that ‘celebrated all families.’ The commercial showed families in everyday moments, including LGBTQ and interracial families, and the backlash came. Instead of backing down, Honeymaid printed out the messages of disapproval they received and commissioned artists to transform the negative comments into something else. The artists rolled up the paper comments and used them to form the word ‘Love.’ The brand received 10 times as many positive comments in response to this art. The video campaign ended with the line, “Proving only one thing matters when it comes to family…” and then panned to the hundreds of rolled up messages forming the word ‘love.’
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