The Power of LGBTQ+ Representation in Advertising

Author: John Line

“I’m warning you, I’m gonna cry,” I whispered to our Visit Seattle client, Kristin Gillespie, as we cheered the 50+ LGBTQ+ couples boarding the Love For All Boat - an activation we created together to kick-off Seattle’s 50th anniversary of Pride.

The truth is, Pride always makes me cry. I get emotionally overwhelmed seeing a large group of queer people come together in all of our beautiful ethnicities, sexual expressions, and gender identities. It reminds me that I am part of a larger community - one that has gone from the fringes of society where we had no rights, to being celebrated by major cities and corporations where we have a lot more rights (but not all, so the fight continues).

I grew up in a conservative household, the son of a Baptist pastor. As a teenager or even young adult I never could have imagined Pride as it exists today. My first mainstream exposure to LGBTQ+ people was The Ellen Show and her famous coming out episode. I was 17, and I couldn’t believe a lesbian was being prominently featured on television. I knew I was gay but I wasn’t out to anyone, and my parents instructed me to immediately stop watching that show. “She’s ruining our country”, if I remember the quote correctly. So, I began sneak-watching Ellen when they were away at choir rehearsals.

Seeing an LGBTQ+ person in the media had a huge impact on me. It meant I was not alone. Even though I didn’t know a single gay person, I knew Ellen, and that meant that there were others out there like me. And while her show was quickly canceled, what Ellen did paved the way for so many more queer stories to be told. Seeing yourself reflected in the media is powerful and something many of us [cis-gender white folks] take for granted.

The reality is that media is more than just programming - advertising plays a prominent role. As advertisers, we make up ~20-25% of any 30 minute ad-supported show, and the stories we tell and the casting we choose matters. In 1994, IKEA ran what has been dubbed “the first gay ad”, crafted by Deutsch New York. The television spot, which featured a gay couple discussing a dining room table, created such backlash that an IKEA store in upstate New York had to be evacuated due to a bomb scare. But, it created a space for queer people to be seen in advertising, and created room for other advertisers to join the LGBTQ+ party (and we do throw a good party, amiright?).

I never saw the IKEA ad, but I do remember the first mainstream television spot I ever saw that had queer undertones. It was from the travel site Orbitz, and they featured two animated male characters planning a trip to Fort Lauderdale. It was incredibly subtle, but I remember turning to my friends and saying “Oh-My-God, that was gay!”. Straight people wouldn’t have gotten it, but we did.

To be seen by corporate America in a mainstream space, even in a subtle way, was powerful for me. I had seen the ABSOLUT ads in Out Magazine (thank you ABSOLUT!), but those ads ran in a space where people like me were only likely to view it. What I loved about this Orbitz ad was that it was out there, in the “real” world, for everyone to see. It validated my existence, and telegraphed that “you’re not the freak others are making you out to be”.

In the years since, LGBTQ+ representation in advertising has changed considerably. We’ve gone from the subtle “straight people will never notice” ads of the late 90’s and early aughts to actual LGBTQ+ characters brought to life on-screen, with queer folks even being featured in Super Bowl ads.

In my own career, I’ve had an opportunity to feature Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe in an ad for Symetra Life Insurance Company, created content with Law Roach for eBay, and most recently set a World Record for Most LGBTQIA+ Vow Renewals for our client, Visit Seattle. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with colleagues to create the Pride Brand Guide, which provides direction to brands that want to market to the LGBTQ+ community in an authentic way.

I feel grateful that I get to live in a world where queer voices are seen and celebrated, both in programming and in advertising (and of course, most importantly, in the law and in society). I appreciate that many brave people came before us to make that possible - Ellen, the clearly brave clients at IKEA, and so many more.

As we celebrate Pride this year, let’s rejoice in the progress we’ve made and acknowledge we still have a ways to go. Our industry plays an important role: the stories we tell and the casting decisions we make have an outsize impact. Somewhere out there is a queer kid watching one of our ads saying “they see me!”. And we do.