The Wall Street Journal

Why LGBTQ Ads Have Evolved

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In 2019, LGBTQ-themed ads are ubiquitous. And they're now more diverse than ever. As gay pride 2019 approaches, WSJ's Spencer Macnaughton takes a look at how these ads have evolved over the last five decades. Photo Composite: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal


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- Over the course of Pride Month, you're probably noticing
a lot of LBBTQ ads from many mainstream companies.
Right here in Times Square,
these ads and products are everywhere.
From cellphone carriers to financial services companies
to clothing stores and everything in between,
it's hard not to notice that it's Pride Month.
Companies have financial incentive
to advertise to this group.
The total U.S. buying power of the adult LGBTQ population
is close to a trillion dollars.
Brand loyalty is also strong with this group.
According to a 2018 poll, 78% of LGBTQ people
tend to support companies that market to this group,
and 75% of LGBTQ people feel more positive
toward companies that include transgender
and gender-expansive imagery in their outreach,
and that's starting to show up in advertising.
This Gillette ad features a black father
teaching his transgender son how to shave.
- I went into my transition just wanting to be happy.
I'm glad I'm at the point where I'm able to shave.
- [Spencer] Experts say these ads
are now more diverse and inclusive than ever.
- Advertisers really want to appeal to millennials
and the generation following them, Generation Z,
to appeal to their value system,
which includes the importance of diversity
and reflecting what their lives look like.
- But it wasn't always this way.
Over the last 50 years,
LGBTQ-targeted ads have evolved, a lot.
(pleasant piano and orchestral music)
Before the 1970s, there were very few explicit depictions
of LGBTQ people in advertising, but by the '70s,
marketers started realizing they were missing out
on a potentially lucrative market,
so they started placing ads in gay publications
like the Los Angeles Advocate and After Dark,
but they stopped short of placing ads
in mainstream publications.
That's because many newspapers and magazines
had policies that prohibited ads
containing the words gay or homosexual.
Today, the strategy has flipped.
Corporations have expanded beyond LGBTQ publications
and are placing ads where everyone can see.
- They are feeling like in those mainstream publications,
they're able to cast a wider net
and reach a larger potential audience.
- [Spencer] In 2018, NBC aired this Coca-Cola ad
during the Super Bowl
that included gender non-conforming pronouns.
- [Narrator] There's a Coke for he and she.
- [Narrator] And her.
- [Narrator] And me.
- [Narrator] And them.
- In the 1980s, many advertisers withdrew
their gay-targeted ads from niche publications.
- When AIDS started to develop,
it was really first known as a gay disease.
The stigma was specifically around gay sex,
and that was pretty icky for advertisers.
Conceptually, they wanted to stay away from that concept.
- [Spencer] Absolut Vodka was the only major liquor brand
that continued advertising
to gay consumers through the '80s.
- Absolut stayed in for decades,
and really made a name for itself and earned the loyalty
of the gay market by showing loyalty to the gay market.
- [Spencer] Today, a range of vodka companies
target LGBTQ consumers in their ads and campaigns.
Stoli's limited edition bottle celebrates
the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots,
and this ad by Skyy Vodka says it's the official vodka
of World Pride in New York and features RuPaul's Drag Race
All Stars winner Trixie Mattel.
- [Trixie] I'm Trixie Mattel,
and I'm proudly American (laughs).
(pleasant mallet percussion music)
- In the 1990s, as stigma associated with HIV and AIDS
slowly decreased, companies started advertising
to gay people on TV and in mainstream publications,
but they often did this through coded messages
rather than explicit depictions of gay people.
Look at this Subaru ad from 1999.
At first glace, there's nothing that explicitly tries
to reach LGBTQ people, but if you look closer,
you see that the slogan reads that the company is, quote,
"Entirely comfortable with its orientation,"
and features one vanity plate
that nods to the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess,
which had a huge lesbian following.
Another plate says P Townie, indicating that the driver
is from the gay vacation hot spot
of Provincetown, Massachusetts.
These ads allowed advertisers to communicate with gay people
on mainstream platforms with less risk of backlash.
The coded messages were often lost on heterosexual people.
In 1994, IKEA launched a commercial
that featured two gay men shopping for a dining room table.
- I met Steve at my sister's wedding.
I was really impressed with how well-designed
the IKEA furniture was.
- Following the commercial, IKEA's phone lines were flooded.
Some praised the company,
but many others demanded for the ad to be removed,
and the IKEA store in Hicksville, New York
was evacuated after a bomb threat.
Around this time, one company produced an ad
but got cold feet and never released it.
Guinness withdrew this ad in 1995
that featured two men kissing.
Since the '90s, experts say the risk factor
in marketing to LGBTQ people has flipped.
- It feels like it's more risky not to be marketing
to the LGBT community.
Millennials and Gen Z, they also happen to be louder.
They're more savvy with social media.
When they see an injustice happen,
they are going to call it out, and in their mind,
an injustice simply might be
that nine out of the 10 companies
are represented as part of LGBTQ inclusion,
and that 10th company isn't, and to them,
that might be an injustice.
(pleasant mallet percussion music)
- In the early 2000s,
companies started explicitly targeting LGBTQ consumers.
- From 2006 probably all the way through 2014
still felt very gay white male focused.
- [Spencer] In the first half of the 2010s,
portrayals of same sex couples started showing up
in catalogs and commercials as companies started to realize
that the pluses might actually outweigh the possible risks.
- I just bought a Kindle Paperwhite.
We should celebrate.
- My husband's bringing me a drink right now.
- So is mine! (upbeat rock music)
- 2015 was a watershed moment in advertising
as well as a legal moment because of the passage
of marriage equality.
Advertisers responded to that by suddenly increasing
the number of same sex couples who are included
in those commercials.
- [Spencer] Since 2015,
some of the world's biggest companies
have produced LGBTQ ads that have popped up
on advertising's biggest stages,
like this Nike ad featuring transgender athlete
Chris Mosier that aired during the 2016 Olympics,
and in the last few years,
companies have taken another step
by expanding beyond what Grace calls
packageable representations and toward portrayals
that include a wider variety of LGBTQ people.
This includes more depictions of transgender
and non-binary people as well as people of color,
and while LGBTQ advertising has evolved over time,
many are still critical of these ads.
- There's a large majority, I believe,
of the LGBTQ community who looks at any new advertiser
or brand that's coming onto the scene
to say that they're marketing and supportive of LGBTQ pride
and they're scratching their heads and wondering
where were you four years ago,
where were you 10 years ago, where were you 20 years ago.
You know, where were these companies then,
and I think that what we're seeing
is now really that monetization
and companies really trying to profit.

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