Visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in media and their representation in campaigns, ads, and content has a lasting impact on creating an inclusive social atmosphere. Statistically, “80% of people exposed to LGBTQ+ representation in media say that they are more supportive of equal rights for LGBTQ+ people,” according to GLAAD and P&G’s LGBTQ Inclusion in Advertising & Media report.
The erasure of historically marginalised voices and their representation in media has been a relevant issue for brands and consumers over the last 50 years. While it continues to be a topic of relevance and an emotionally compelling one at that, it can be confusing for people to understand why LGBTQ+ erasure in media and the importance of their representation is such a pressing matter.
LGBTQ+ representation in media has been on an upward incline and continues to increase as viewers seek greater awareness and representation of marginalised communities. Moreover, a Nielsen report on inclusivity in media (Nielsen International LGBTQ+ Inclusive Media Perceptions Study, 2022) states that non-LGBTQ+ people also note the lack of inclusivity and representation of the community in media. Representation matters, and it increases the visibility of communities of people, helps them feel heard, and helps others empathise with them. In fact, there is a direct link between increased acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals among non-LGBTQ+ people through exposure to LGBTQ+ representation in media.
Brands are perceived more positively when there is cohesion between a brand’s values and its communications, especially when it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ communities. The inclusion of LGBTQ+ individuals in communications can be beneficial to brands in multiple ways. For instance, it can increase the resonance of content and messaging by making it relatable to a larger group of individuals. It can make the brand seem more humane, by being inclusive and caring about equal rights through representation of LGBTQ+ in their campaigns and advertisements. It can also extend the feeling of communicating like-mindedness to Gen Z, which is by and large a more politically active and socially informed cohort of consumers.
But the lens of representation matters as well. Is any form of representation equally worthy and impactful? Some might disagree, as tone and lens of representation are integral to the perception of content and thereby the brands that communicate them. In fact, Gen Z’s political awareness will immediately flag brands that portray LGBTQ+ individuals as flat and one dimensional, label them as tokenistic and inauthentic in their communications, and “cancel” them on the internet. Should this deter brands from representing LGBTQ+ communities in their communications? No is the short answer.
LGBTQ+ representation by brands, by and large, has reflected well-packaged stories—the individual (who is either gay or lesbian) is shown as deeply disturbed by their own identity, grappling with societal conditioning, and then comes an upheaval of positivity when a heteronormative figure in their life (usually a parent), accepts them for who they are. While the intention behind this message can be pure and positive, there are multiple issues with how LGBTQ+ individuals are represented.
Firstly, there are more letters in LGBTQ+ than just L & G, and the representation of trans, non-binary, bisexual, asexual, and other queer individuals is notoriously low (Nielsen International LGBTQ+ Inclusive Media Perceptions Study, 2022). It can be noted that these individual communities and their experiences extend to aspects of their gender identity, a topic that brands try to veer away from, whereas representations of lesbian and gay communities can be about their sexual orientation, without addressing their individual gender identities. Representation of LGBTQ+ individuals typically involve characters that are more caricatures than people, whose mannerisms are extreme stereotypes of the community. It is also problematic that the larger theme of the LGBTQ+ life is to seek acceptance from the non-LGBTQ+ around them, which promotes an unfair importance on external validation rather than emphasising internal experiences and self-acceptance.
A recent example of this type of representation can be seen in the backlash faced by Bud Light through their advertisement with Dylan Mulvaney which came across as jumping onto trans inclusion as a “trend” and not being able to follow through with meaningfulness.
This is tokenistic inauthenticity in representation — inclusion of characters from specific communities becomes a “message” rather than a story. The full, multidimensional representation of the community is essential for brands to be seen as inclusive and supportive, in an authentic way—and for the audience to normalise and internalise a picture of this community in its essence and truth, and not as a “lesson in tolerance.” As opposed to the tokenistic representation of trans people by Bud Light, narratives that convey emotionally fuller stories that represent LGBTQ+ individuals would result in a greater and more positive understanding towards the brand’s activism as well as improve chances of generating empathy with the audience.
Accurate representation of LGBTQ+ individuals and communities are important from the lens of modelling and social psychology. Representation helps people from marginalised communities like the LGBTQ+ feel affirmed and connected to their surroundings and the societies they live in. The representation of LGBTQ+ individuals who are happy, well-adjusted, and integrated within their social groups creates the possibility of that acceptance and normalisation becoming a reality for LGBTQ+ people. It makes their lives visible and real to those around them, reducing the sense of foreignness and otherness that is often experienced by them.
A huge part of this also comes from casting and including LGBTQ+ individuals in the making of these communications—listening to their experiences and their stories and casting them to play the narratives of their own lives. Brands would not be remiss in running their narratives by an LGBTQ+ audience to vet for correct representation. LGBTQ+ individuals are the subject-matter experts of their representations, and unequivocally giving them the platform to be able to cast their narrative in communications would be an emphatic way to command the attention and respect in the eyes of the viewers as well as be truly authentic in support of the community.
Some examples of communications that show authenticity and multidimensionality in LGBTQ+ representation:
Vicks’ “Generations of Care” ad represents trans lives - a mother-daughter relationship where a trans woman adopts an orphan, thus pushing the narrative of trans people beyond the lens of their gender affirmation, to display the other roles they take on in their lives.
Anouk’s “Bold is Beautiful” ad represents a lesbian relationship wherein they are meeting the parents—without emphasizing external validation but rather focusing on self-acceptance and finding one’s chosen family.
OKCupid’s “Are you an #AllyofLove” ad features diversified representations of LGBTQ+ people and their dating experiences rather than depicting them through a cookie-cutter lens.
Tinder India’s “A Swipe is just the Beginning” ad represents bisexuality and individuals with fluid gender representation expressing joyfulness and freedom in dating and relationships in a Gen-Z centric way.
Given the increasing acceptance and willingness to embrace LGBTQ+ imagery and narratives in media, it is imperative for companies and brands to take on the task of featuring LGBTQ+ individuals in their advertisements. This entails prioritising authentic, favourable, and influential portrayals. At a time when LGBTQ+ individuals still encounter unparalleled discrimination and violence, the entertainment and media industries hold significant potential for fostering positive societal transformations. By showcasing diverse and inclusive depictions of LGBTQ+ individuals, they can contribute to altering attitudes and perspectives, thus playing a pivotal role in shaping a more accepting culture.
Moiza Shaikh is an associate at Quantum Consumer Solutions in Mumbai