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Rainbow Reflections: The Marketing of Pride



Isobar strategist Mark Linford unpicks LGBT representation in some recent ad campaigns

Rainbow Reflections: The Marketing of Pride

It was impossible to ignore the sunny optimism across central London this weekend as Pride festivities filled the streets, marchers and spectators alike buoyed by the cross-state legalisation of same-sex marriage in the US. Triumphant ripples continue online this week in people’s rainbow-filtered profile pictures – simple yet personal declarations of support and solidarity. 

There is a sense of victory. The visibility of LGBT people and LGBT issues is dancing down Regent Street, it’s splashed across the cover of Vanity Fair. With the inaugural Cannes Glass Lions awarded last week it feels like an opportune moment to reflect on the representational politics of our industry. 

What role can brands play in supporting LGBT equality as they endeavour to shape culture to their own ends?

I agree with Tham Khai Meng’s thought in Campaign – we’re beyond David Ogilvy’s assertion that ‘advertising reflects the mores of society, but does not change them’. There are examples of brave work from brands which provoke and genuinely challenge the status quo. However, this is often counter-balanced by work which appropriates marginalised queer culture for its ‘cool’ factor, or simply lacks awareness.

When dealing with gender, particularly women, the argument for responsible representation is pretty clear cut: if marketing to 50% of your audience, or all of your audience as the case may be, try not to be awful and patronising. For the LGBT community, representation in marketing is a little more vexed. 

It’s unusual for LGBT individuals to constitute a specific target group for a product or service. Instead we form part of a larger audience, so to represent LGBT people in marketing is always a conscious, politically charged choice, not a straightforward reflection of a target demographic. 

It is a choice an increasing number of brands are making today-so much so that some at Pride mourned the loss of a radical politics replaced by a confetti-cannon commercialism where banks and technology firms like Google and Buzzfeed have floats in the parade. 

This is the double bind that exists for brands who wish to do social good by giving visibility to minorities; they are simultaneously open to criticisms of tokenism or appropriation, exploiting the ‘edginess’ of marginalised subcultures, or more recently, jumping on a bandwagon of mainstream acceptance. 

I want to survey a few recent examples and unpick what’s going on with LGBT representation — who’s doing it right? What does authentic support look like?

#MatalanModernFamiliesradically ordinary

An Isobar colleague mentioned this campaign to me in passing, and we remarked on just how uncontroversial the Matalan approach seemed. There seemed nothing contentious about a brand in 2015 championing a more diverse definition of family. 

In part this reflects a broader cultural shift (and one that is not yet evenly distributed), in part the staunchly ordinary and understated approach of the campaign. Here are gay and lesbian families presented without judgement or attempt to provoke, simply as part of definition of modern family, the new normal. 

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I feel as though this work deserves more credit. Matalan did it properly, so to speak, with a research paper investigating the shifting demographics of modern British households, and portraits of 30 different, diverse families.

In many ways redefining family to include same-sex parents, but also multi-generational families, single parents, even groups of friends is a more radical move than just including LGBT individuals. The ‘2.4 kids’ nuclear family could not be more out-dated these days, so Matalan’s message feels both authentic and inclusive.

#EpicStrut – A freak like me?

This infamous advert from a category known for its in-your-face creative pyrotechnics is presented as empowering-and lauded by some for challenging gender stereotypes- but for some members of the LGBT community there are uncomfortable elements. As an industry a well documented lack of diversity in the make-up of creative departments leaves cultural ‘blind spots’ which result in cultural ‘faux pas’ and even PR disasters.


The ad introduces a supremely ‘normal’ man named Dave – the epitome of what Grayson Perry has shrewdly labelled ‘default man’ - only to reveal his more scandalous bottom half: the heels, the thighs, the daisy dukes, the butt padding.

The ad grabs attention by violating unspoken rules surrounding appropriate behaviour in public spaces , the shock factor of the performance reinforced by the Pussycat Dolls soundtrack — ‘don’t you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me’.

For many queer and transgendered individuals, the dynamic of this advert contains uncomfortable parallels with a common transphobic  obsession– the fear and fascination with what’s ‘underneath’ - as if what lies beneath somehow represents a superior ‘truth’ about their identity. In contrast with the caricatured fiction of the commercial is also the reality that transgendered people regularly face very real abuse and assault in public spaces.

It’s through more diverse perspectives as an industry that we might avoid these representational missteps in future.

Smirnoff Be Open – the importance of action 

Smirnoff’s new campaign celebrates inclusivity and tolerance. Some of the specific executions within this campaign refer to political openness, but also to positive acceptance messages around sexuality. The style of these posters alludes to Barbara Kruger’s famous declarations and may well echo the subversive, challenging nature of her work, though Smirnoff in embracing all-comers may dilute the impact of their message somewhat. 

9 smirnoff

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Perhaps more importantly, Absolut have a thirty year heritage in supporting the LGBT community, dating from a time when that support may have been considered a commercial risk.  

Absolut have sponsored RuPaul’s Drag Race, long a cult stapes of noughties queer culture which is only now beginning to gain mainstream recognition . They arguably earned the right to celebrate 30 years of connection to this community in 2011.

9 smirnoff rainbow

LGBT people familiar with the Absolut connection might find the Smirnoff campaign rings a little hollow, however to its credit the brand has not shied away from embracing and educating around queer culture in recent months. In partnership with Buzzfeed the brand has created content celebrating the history of queer culture. Articles such as  “Vogueing Is Back: This Is Why You Should Care” – explain the origins of these cultural artifacts, which are currently experiencing a post-Madonna revival.

Ice creams for Drag Queens – Magnum’s Pleasure-seekers

Finally, a provocative campaign from Magnum. Within a campaign like Matalan’s, LGBT people are assimilated into an expanded yet normalised definition of family. Magnum however have tapped into queer culture to provoke conversations around acceptance and personal authenticity; the blonde drag queen central to the film is instantly recognisable to viewers of Drag Race as Willam, a rebellious, arrogant but supremely entertaining figure from the show.

The film, which was premiered at Cannes, seeks to align pleasure-seeking indulgence with a broader celebration and affirmation of identity, in this case queer identity and gender non-conformity. To watch Willam savour a distinctly phallic ice cream fits perfectly with her unapologetic attitude and shows Magnum willing to push boundaries rather than going for a more ‘vanilla’ treatment (pun intended).

Giving queer and transgender individuals a platform for visibility is a positive move – the ‘T’ in LGBT is historically marginalised even within this grouping –and Magnum are also to be commended for giving the stars of the commercial the space to tell their own stories in a series of accompanying online videos. 

Yet the film isn’t an entirely unapologetic celebration. The beautiful, but melancholy, track (Mechanical Bride’s cover of Rihanna’s “Umbrella”) offers what is arguably an uplifting message, but presents us with something that is at once familiar and strange-not quite what it seems at first glance. Similarly, the film plays with a sense of strangeness and otherness, asking both the audience and the other characters to play the “is she? isn’t she?” game  so familiar to representations of transgender individuals in popular culture. 

This is of course where the film’s dramatic tension and impact comes from but poses a question-is it forcing us to question preconceptions or is it inadvertently reinforcing those preconceptions? 

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So what can brands do to get it right when engaging the LGBT community? 

My advice to brands would be to celebrate difference; engage with the communities represented; do your research. Representing the LGBT community is a choice, make it a choice to shape society, not just represent it by stepping beyond humour or controversy as our default modes of engagement. Beyond representation is action: brands should back-up their communications with behaviours if they aspire to make more substantial contributions to culture and a more equal society.

This article was originally posted on Isobar's UK Blog.

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Dentsu Creative UK, Thu, 02 Jul 2015 16:05:46 GMT