Feature

Dragvertising: charting queens’ slow rise to commercial influence

Drag queens are moving from creatures of the night to darlings of the mainstream – so much so that their popularity is turning the heads of advertisers.

Tazo, a new-age tea brand that Unilever bought from Starbucks, has a new brand ambassador promoting the experiential portion of its ‘Brew the Unexpected’ campaign. Wearing a mini dress with a bouffant hairdo and the biggest set of lashes you’ve ever seen, Alyssa Edwards invites consumers to break from their comfort zone at Camp Tazo, a Texan site where visitors can hike in heels and gossip around the campfire.

Edwards is the camp director. She is also the drag persona of Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson.

“We weren't specifically looking for a drag queen to be a camp director,” says George Hamilton, tea director at Unilever, “but it was obvious to us that this was going to be an awesome fit.

“We wanted someone that epitomized the journey that Tazo was trying to inspire in our consumers, and also the energy and personality of the brand. Alyssa just leaped off the page.”

Tazo is not the only brand to feature a drag queen in its marketing campaign, but it’s one of the first to work with a personality rather than a face. Kellogg’s Cornflakes and Ikea are among the handful of household names that have previously featured a gaggle of queens in their advertising, yet in these spots the performers played a voiceless role.

Now, queens such as Edwards have garnered their own fan bases, and brands such as Toyota and Tazo are paying attention to their influencer potential.

The most enduring of these drag influencers is RuPaul, who has been fronting campaigns since he became the first drag queen to sign with Mac Cosmetics in 1994. Now he is best known for fronting RuPaul’s Drag Race — a competition show that has run for as many seasons as Friends, launched the careers of a swathe of contestants, and spawned a number of spin-off enterprises. But between 1994 and 2009 — the year the show launched — advertising barely brushed the surface of drag. That was largely because the media didn’t either.

“It took many years to sell that show,” recalls Randy Barbato, who produces Drag Race along with his World of Wonder Production partner, Fenton Bailey. “But when it debuted on television it was a milestone breakthrough.... Now in its 10th season, it's won its first Emmy for best competition show, and I think that illustrates that it took a very long time for the mainstream public and the industry to really understand and appreciate this show.

“I think ... people thought, ‘Oh it's a show about drag queens, it must be whacky and crazy and niche.’ But the reality is, it's very much a mainstream show about artists who are absolutely relatable.”

If Drag Race is a barometer for what Barbato calls drag’s “long-tail evolution” into popular culture, then its viewership proves that the art is almost on a mainstream par with pop music. Season 10 averaged 723,000 viewers on US broadcast TV, while back episodes of the show have been distributed across more than 180 other countries.

Edwards, a former contestant, is now starring in her own show on Netflix, and series six winner Bianca Del Rio recently completed an international, 80-day comedy tour. Big-time entertainment investment is rolling into the drag scene.

As a result, Barbato and Bailey have quite shrewdly taken the popularity of Drag Race and manifested it physically in the form of RuPaul’s DragCon, a multi-day event comprising panels, runways, retail, and meet and greets on both the East and West Coasts of the US. RuPaul and World of Wonder hosted just under 50,000 attendees at the New York convention last month, which was sponsored by the likes of VH1, Anastasia Beverly Hills, The Grand Resort and Spa, and Dermablend. At last year’s conference in LA, the average visitor spent $107 on the show floor.

But the attraction for sponsors isn’t necessarily DragCon’s size or ability to help visitors part with their cash, Bailey contends. Rather, it’s the type of consumer it attracts. Attendees skew 60% female and all generations are represented, from young kids to grandparents, according to its producers.

“There's been a lot of articles and hand wringing about advertisers now being able to find their audience,” says Bailey. “Well, they're at DragCon. They're the millennials, they're the people who are really hot on sharing on social media, they're the kinds of people that advertising desperately wants to reach but ... wonder where they are.

“What this tribe represents is a group of people who aren't bothered by gender definitions, sexuality definitions, or ethnicity definitions defining them. That, of course, wreaks havoc with traditional advertisers' analysis about consumers. This tribe doesn't behave that way and that's what has perhaps been confounding.”

There still will be brands that choose to back away from the drag scene given its history and association with the LGBTQ+ community: for every Tazo campaign there’s a gay couple attacked for their role in a McCain’s advert, and for every sponsor of DragCon there’s a brand that endures homophobic trolling for featuring everyday depictions of same-sex love.

Yet Bailey is confident that the days of brands’ pandering to the minority will soon be over, with Nike’s work with Colin Kaepernick acting as a watershed moment for the death of corporate social apathy.

Barbato, on the other hand, believes brands should view drag as less of a product of the “gay ghetto” and more as a pure form of art — one “that is absolutely aligned with the LGBT community but appeals to everyone.”

“Particularly given the times we live in and the political turmoil we are surrounded by, these artists offer brands the opportunity to identify with colour and light and positivity,” he explains. “It's an alternative to everything else that's out there.”

From Hamilton’s standpoint at Unilever, there was “no hesitation” in casting a drag queen in the lead role of a major brand campaign.

And if Unilever — the second-largest advertiser on the planet — can do it, why shouldn’t everyone else?