Getting below the LGBTQ surface

Fuse president Stephen Brown on how brands should think about authentic representation during Pride month.
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By Stephen Brown

As a child of the 80’s – confused about who I was and where I fit in – I definitely didn’t have many gay role models. There were only a handful of them on TV, most of whom only subtlety hinted to their hidden life. Ten years before Ellen DeGeneres said “I’m gay” on national television, there were no gay heroes, no “out” movie stars and definitely no advertisers who seemed interested in speaking to a kid trying to figure himself out.

So when ads directed to my community started to slowly make their way out of the industry closet, I – like most of my peers – really took notice. We drank Absolut because they always bought the expensive pages of the LGBTQ papers; we drank Labatt and Molson because they started sponsoring our LGBTQ baseball leagues; and we loved TD Bank because of their big, muscly floats at Pride. I especially loved when two men or women would sneak into an ad – a nod in our direction. Although ads with LGBTQ representation are not running rampant today, they are definitely a bigger part of the mix.

Recently, Pride has been very high on my intellectual and emotional radar as I’ve been more engaged with the movement now than I have been in a while. This dialed up even more when Scott Knox of the Institute of Communication Agencies (ICA) went out to a bunch of ad and marketing people and hosted the first two PrideAM meetings (Pride Advertising and Marketing) in North America.

Sitting in a room full of men and women representing many initials in the LGBTQ spectrum, my pride runeth over. But one of the things I was captivated by was the many voices who spoke about how we, the LGBTQ leaders in the ad and marketing world, need to step up and make sure our community is properly represented.

So I came back to Fuse and pulled together a team to uncover a few things for this year’s Pride. Specifically, for the younger generation to understand the struggle that many of them are unfamiliar with and to see the actual progression from zero LGBTQ presence in advertising, all the way through to today’s version of representation that should go below superficial elements and shows the entirety of the community.

Tokenism is a key theme

Most LGBTQ representation in advertising we see is of the salad bowl variety. You throw one piece of fruit into a bowl and, while the fruit stands out, it’s still a salad. Sure, it’s great we’re being tossed into the proverbial salad, but why can’t a brand just use a LGBTQ person, couple or family as the focus of their ad?

Slim, white, male washing

If you’ve flown Air Canada in the past two years, you’ve had to watch the onboarding safety video with a gay, white, male couple as the lead. Plus one for the gays! But while this couple looks like guys I’m friends with, they are not the only people I’m friends with. If you want to connect, you need to dig below the surface and showcase more than the Wills and Jacks of the world. The community is a rainbow, so borrow that Skittles slogan and “taste the rainbow” in your ads.

Authenticity is hard to reach

Although I love and appreciate the distance we’ve traveled, I sometimes wonder if the marketing and agency teams actually connect with the LGBTQ community to help build the ads. We’re a vocal crowd – if you want authenticity, show us your ideas and we’ll let you know. Better yet, hire a few more LGBTQ’ers and push that diversity scale in the right direction.

I love that I live in a city and country that celebrates all communities. My only ask is we keep advancing these strides and make the many faces of LGBTQ+ shine authentically in our advertising product. I can’t tell you how much it helps the young Stephen Browns of today going through their own personal journeys.

Stephen Brown is the president of Fuse Marketing.