Advertising's representation of LGBT people is still behind the times

Advertising has always been about ideals. It sells the hope of better: a perfect life in a utopian world.

That’s why there is a strong – if not exclusive – focus on being the ideal person. We’re told we should aspire to be part of a devastatingly attractive heterosexual Caucasian couple within a nuclear family, possessing so much disposable income that we don’t know quite what to do with it – other than spend it on products that will make them even more attractive and successful, of course.

But a certain demographic has long been absent from the four corners of the TV ad break screen, billboard and printed page. Gay people.

Probably because gay people aren’t ideal for advertising – in many senses. Same sex couples don’t have gender-defined binary roles with must-have products to suit. Their orientation is controversial in certain territories, so their inclusion could be commercially challenging. And it’s difficult to show ‘a housewife’ or ‘breadwinner’ figure in a 30-second ad if they’re both male, female or trans.

Bluntly, advertising doesn’t target gay people because they’re an unknown entity. ‘How do we portray them?’, ‘what do we sell them?’ and ‘good Lord, let’s not offend anyone’ are deterring concerns often whispered in agencies before the executive decision is taken to run with a straight heterosexual focus.

So instead gay people in advertising feature in background or sideshow roles – roles that the general public are comfortable with. Gay people can raise a smile and add light relief to adverts with some sharp comments and a flourish of glitter – think Dale Winton adding some showbiz spangle in those ads for CashMyGold.co.uk, or as the predictable gay best friend (Gok Wan and his hordes of Activia Bifidus addicts springs to mind). But they never take the leading role (much unlike the West End, I jest).

As the confetti from Pride Season settled we saw the annual influx of LGBTQ-centric advertising. Smirnoff launched a brilliant inclusivity campaign leading with ‘Homosexual, heterosexual, who-gives-a-sexual?’. The likes of Fortnum & Masons surely raised a few eyebrows again with a well-engineered apostrophe in its print ads (‘Proud to be the queens’ grocer’). This acknowledgement is certainly positive – however it does seem to tiptoe around any real representation.

Gay people are generally invisible. Not one of these advertisements featured an obviously same sex couple; there were Pride colours, sparkles, nods and winks, but (with the exception of the brilliant ‘Pride Heroes’ campaign by Pride in London) there simply weren't any LGBTQ people in any brand’s adverts. They’re invisible because they’re missing.

“Nonsense!’ you exclaim. “There are loads of ads that feature gay people”. Granted, there are – but they’re often featured as a kind of sensationalism, a risqué subject to show how daring or adventurous a brand is. Fashion advertising features female models in bizarre poses with strong sexual overtones; whilst at the other end of the scale J C Penney features headline-grabbing same sex couples in its Mother’s Day and Father’s Day adverts. Here, gay people are a cause for sensationalism and attention. The everyday gay people are unseen.

So wouldn’t it be better if gay people within adverts were invisible for the right reasons? Not in the sense of being missing, but by being unnoticed. Wouldn’t true equality come from representation that is subtle and implied, instead of being headline grabbing and edgy?

This was perfectly summed up by a friend who once suggested how good it could be if we reached the stage where "you see an ad for DFS, and instead of a man and a woman on a sofa with the kids you see two guys and their children. Nothing over the top, just the same kind of subtlety you see in straight TV families".

Unfortunately this casual inference seems highly unlikely. Advertising relies upon stereotypes to get the message across. In a world of five-second pre-rolls and 140-character tweets, stereotypes and archetypes get the message across with familiarity and without confusion.

I know that this may be wishful thinking, but I can’t help longing for the day when gay people are truly invisible in advertising – not being marked out by stereotypes or sensationalism. Just a gentle representation that is fair and genuine, letting them blend in like straight people. Free from the whiff of a brand wishing to be politically correct, edgy or superficially inclusive.

And that could be many, many Prides away.

Jacob Lovewell is a junior planner at Kitcatt Nohr

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.