Is Your Brand Queer Enough? (it’s never enough)

Another thread that I was unable to roll out on Twitter – now being posted here. It’s a good one!

Held by Pride AM Hosted by Havas, London on 4 July 2019

Was surprised when I arrived to see hundreds of name badges for the delegates. Had imagined it was going to be a small focus group, but my ballpark estimate is approx. 300 lanyards on the reception tables, and ultimately about 200 people attended.

No surprises – most were young hipster types, vast majority under 35, overwhelmingly white – i.e. there was a distinct lack of diversity amongst the participants. Before the panel event started free alcohol and nibbles were plentiful.

(As an aside, the toilets were posh floor to ceiling jobs completely enclosed cubicles, a reminder that many women in the corporate world won’t understand that most workplaces don’t have anywhere near this level of privacy.)

Some screens were on display in the reception area. Inside the lecture theatre a trans flag hung (no sign of the ordinary rainbow flag).

At the beginning of the session we were told about the mission of Pride AM and directed to look at the booklet they had produced called “Outvertising” by Mark Runacus, who first developed the idea.

Mark wrote the first draft of the booklet and said he wanted to do something for “crazy loose queer people” and that the final booklet was “40 pages of queer gold”.

Mark described his own appearance as “cabin boy realness” and that his husband didn’t like the look (basically a white shirt and dark trousers). This is a photo of Mark, a long distance from being a boy of any description.

(At the time of writing you could go to their website and download the booklet for free – it was called “Outvertising” and the link is now missing.)

Next up was Lee who worked in strategy and who gave further context to the Pride AM project. It was the 50th anniversary of Pride when “queer people kickstarted the LGBTQ movement” by “rioting for four days”.

Lee put up a slide titled “queer culture in the UK since the middle ages” and he cited Edward II (reign 1307-27) who may have had a homosexual affair, and a Victorian drag queen called Fanny, as examples that there has “always been a known queer culture”.

However, although this queer culture stretches back to “since the middle ages” they have largely been missing from advertising. It made me wonder whether Lee and the Pride AM team had never heard of camp, or the long use of camp in advertising. Surely Mark would remember?

Apparently Absolut in the 80s were the first to openly appeal to the pink pound, and then IKEA did an ad with a gay couple which was only shown after 10pm, despite it being two blokes basically talking about how well made and lovely IKEA furniture is.

How have things changed? asked Lee. Well now we are much more likely to see people of different sexualities in ads, but not so much different genders. 31% of the LGBTQ community feels that marketing portrays them badly, and *40% feel the industry doesn’t accurately portray people of different gender identities.

*Later I looked in the booklet, 40% actually relates to the general population. No context was given for what would count as ‘bad’ or the definition of ‘gender identities’ (the latter could simply mean people sick of sexist stereotypes of women who clean, men who don’t, etc).

Pride AM had developed “Outvertising” as a free guide to encourage inclusivity, and to help brands reach a mainstream (i.e. straight) audience. Research suggested that “3 out of 4 tested LGBTQ themed ads outperform generic ads in driving brand recall” (except this can’t be true when it reaches saturation point).

Pride AM wanted to “influence culture” through advertising and Lee quoted that all important statistic from the flawed Stonewall 2012 study, which surveyed a very small number of people, and cited that this was reason enough alone to use advertising to influence society.

Lee had four top tips to share with the delegates.

1. Be Authentic.
Don’t just do pinkwashing, ensure that if as an agency you depict gay dads in an ad, that the company actually has a policy in place which supports gay dads adopting.

The LGBT M&S sandwich was mentioned (and kept being mentioned) as an inauthentic effort as M&S had not given much money to LGBT charities. (Beleaguered sandwich below)

2. Testing.
Do proper testing within the community itself. Avoid stereotyping and be careful around humour (which surely conflicted with some of the earlier comments made by Mark, the brains behind the outfit). Consult with Stonewall, Mosaic (which seems to be an LGBT *youth centre* – pls tell me I’m wrong) or with Pride AM to make sure you get the details right.

3. Be Prepared
“for all manner of hate” and “vitriol”. This is bound to happen and as long as you are happy with the work and consulted the necessary orgs to validate the campaign you shouldn’t worry.

(Again it wasn’t clarified what this ‘hate’ was – most people couldn’t give a toss about adverts I know that much.)

4. Thinking of the long term strategy.
How will the campaign last throughout the year? Forward plan. Lee explained that Pride AM was a not for profit organisation run entirely by volunteers, who don’t have to be queer, and they welcomed any help.

Roadshows were planned and a new project on intersectionality is in the pipeline. Lee thanked Havas for hosting the event, and for Pride AM’s volunteers in organising the event that night.

Then there was a panel discussion made up of five people (four in the business and a trans documentary filmmaker).

Hugo Greenhalgh was the moderator and he talked about how he had given a talk to 12-15 year olds that afternoon about how you need to have trust in what journalists say is true, and why should the public trust advertising agencies?

Chris Kenna, a member of the Pride AM team, and who runs his own company said that trust comes from authenticity, which ultimately means choosing a letter from the alphabet bag and representing it honestly.  Chris quoted the figure that the LGBTQ community in the USA spend 1 trillion dollars per year (if true, pretty extraordinary – wonder what the comparison to a similarly sized demographic is?).  

The woman from Diageo (multinational alcoholic beverage company) said companies should make “less ads and do more to support causes”.  

The woman from Mr President (an independent creative agency) said that agencies and companies must be prepared to “drive through change for LGBTQ issues”.  For example, the Co-Op had developed a rainbow muffin, but they were ‘serious’ because they had put their staff through Stonewall allyship training, whereas the M&S LGBT sandwich had not done anything for the LGBTQ community. 

The moderator wanted to know what other brands had been “fucking things up”?

Daniel from ad agency said that ‘Lola’s Cupcakes’ had developed a Pride line, but when they were pushed what they were doing for LBGTQ+ their belated answer was they were going to “hand out cupcakes to volunteers on the Pride march”.  This wasn’t “good enough”. 

Chris thought the M&S the LGBT sandwich was bad as it was only available in one shop and was obviously just paying lip service to the idea of inclusivity.  Then Chris did a 180 degree turnabout and said that LGBTQ products didn’t always have to donate money to LGBTQ charities.  “We’re not a charity case, we’re real people, we’re here to make money for our clients.”

Dee, the token trans panel member, and filmmaker, said that artistically you shouldn’t restrict people from making stories about whatever interested them.   

Hugo wanted to know if the panel felt that companies who advertised to the LGBTQ community in the West were failing to apply their marketing strategies in the same way in countries where homosexuality is illegal, and that it was all a veneer of acceptance (‘pinkwashing’ again).  

It was pointed out to him by Daniel that to sell a rainbow T-shirt in a store in Bagdad would put employees lives at risk, and that our lives in the West are privileged.  (Obviously asking companies to withdraw their businesses from countries with vile human rights abuses would be beyond the pale – so no one suggested that.)

The first time a brand does advertising aimed at LGBTQ it should be welcomed and they should continue to pursue the strategy.  Agencies should encourage brands to go for it.  

Then there was a discussion about Nivea, as an employee there had said they “don’t do gay”.  This was the latest hot news story in the advertising world it seems.  

Dee felt that there was too much focus on the transition element of trans peoples’ lives, rather than just them being normal regular people.  

Chris said he felt that he responded to ads better when they were targeted in the appropriate medium.  For example, if he saw a gay couple being used to sell a car in the Metro, then he would regard that as an ad aimed at straight people – i.e. pinkwashing.  However if he saw *exactly the same ad* in a gay mag he would feel positive about it.  There’s no pleasing some people!

Question: Do we celebrate being queer?  Or is being queer just normal, and we want to see normal representations?  (This seemed to be an area of great confusion on the panel and of the project itself.) 

Trump was described as an ‘anti-christ’ and then the woman from Mr President said that the only way to change a client was to “fuck it up from the inside” (nice) and to persuade them it was their idea in the first place.  

The audience were invited to ask questions.  

One woman said that she had never seen an ad featuring “lesbians or same sex attracted females” (a euphemism to cover both bi women and straight men?).  Lesbians have money and therefore she was very concerned that no adverts included them.  Chris said that there had been three adverts this year from Scottish Widows, NHS Blood Service, and a third one, all featuring lesbians.  He said he was genuinely very sorry that she hadn’t seen these ads.   Someone else said to the woman that it “wasn’t right” that anyone should feel that they weren’t being represented, and that it had to be changed.  

The panel returned to the M&S sandwich debacle and questioned whether kicking up a fuss about examples like that actually created barriers to companies using queer representation.  (Surely M&S will think twice about going there again?)

Dee said that we have to accept at the start that mistakes will be made, but as long as it is isn’t deliberately offensive, it should be welcomed.  

The Diageo woman encouraged people to be “honest and kind”.  Another said that there was lots of creativity in queer culture, but also that a lot of people were seeking to be offended.  

Another audience member asked how stereotyping could be avoided with digital advertising in social media when certain demographics were targeted.  The panel denied that targeting was an actual thing and that representations of, or appeals to, queer people were ‘incidental’ rather than ‘targeted’.  

Then the final (ludicrous) question:  Could the Pride brand be widened to include all intersectionalities (i.e. even ones outside of LGBTQ+)?   The short answer was ‘no’, it was already too diverse, with separate Pride Marches being demanded by the different letters, and different intersectionalities already (e.g. Black Pride).  

The woman from Mr President quickly got in before wrap up “I just want to say that women should stand up for trans women” which was welcomed by clapping and whooping from majority in the room.  The moderator then gave Dee, the TW, the final word from the panel, who talked confusedly about all the progress that had been made over the last 50 years, and things were much better now.  

Then Mark Runacus came back to address us and said his hobby horse at the moment was that on average 24% of people working in the advertising industry had experienced sexual assault, but if you were queer that figure jumped up to 32%.  (So a bit higher, and what is ‘queer’ anyway?)

Mark wanted more young people to get involved in the project and that Pride AM was offering “free role model training” aimed at them.  Also there would be an ‘after party’ at a bar nearby later.  When we returned to the reception area further drinks and hot food were being served.  

As I travelled on the tube home I looked up and saw the rarest of all things, an ad featuring ‘queers’.  Surely we have now passed the saturation point for LGBTQ advertising? But we will see how much further it has to go.