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The Transformation of Marketing to the LGBTQ+ Community Over 50 Years


[In the late days of May, the North Face introduced an ad campaign featuring the fabulous Pattie Gonia, a drag queen and environmentalist. The ad, displayed on Instagram, showcased the glorious queen prancing through forests and meadows, inviting viewers to join them in nature. This was the second year that Pattie Gonia and the North Face collaborated on Pride-themed advertising, but it did not come without controversy. Conservatives called for a boycott of North Face products, sparking a trend of big corporations, from Anheuser-Busch InBev to Target to Kohl’s, facing backlash for their inclusion of queer people in marketing and merchandise.

For a long time, major companies disregarded the queer community, and if they did include them in ads, it was often through stereotyped and caricatured portrayals. However, as LGBTQ+ rights progressed in the United States, corporations began slowly embracing inclusivity in their marketing efforts. Surprisingly, even though a vast majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, marketing campaigns that feature queer people still receive vitriolic responses.

Let’s delve into how we arrived at this point.

The early years, spanning from 1970 to 1990, witnessed the first attempts by major corporations to target queer consumers. Following the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the inaugural Pride march in 1970, a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ visibility and the gay rights movement, alcohol companies like Miller Lite, Budweiser, Coors Light, and Jägermeister were among the first to appeal to queer consumers due to their presence in gay bars and nightclubs. They began placing ads in regional queer newspapers in the late 1970s. Swedish vodka brand Absolut jumped on board in 1981.

Catering to queer customers during the early 1980s proved challenging with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the LGBTQ+ community, leaving them isolated and marginalized. At the time, there was little understanding of queer people’s tastes and purchasing power, making it risky for companies to align their identities with the queer community. However, Absolut’s efforts proved successful. It established a lasting presence in queer markets and formed a strong partnership with GLAAD, the world’s largest queer media advocacy group. Absolut proudly proclaimed, “We were one of the first brands to unapologetically advertise to the LGBTQ+ community,” emphasizing that their community-building efforts resonate to this day.

As LGBTQ+ characters started appearing more frequently in sitcoms like “Ellen” and “Will and Grace” in the late 1990s, LGBTQ+ people’s visibility increased. Additionally, initial research on queer populations and their spending power encouraged more major companies to target this market. Big corporations began venturing beyond queer publications, with Ikea leading the way in 1994 by airing the first TV commercial featuring a gay couple in the United States. The groundbreaking ad depicted two middle-aged men shopping for a dining room table and aired only after 9:30 p.m. in New York and D.C. Unfortunately, it faced backlash, including boycotts and bomb threats against Ikea stores, leading to its short-lived run.

To navigate the risk of alienating their heterosexual customer base while appealing to queer consumers, advertisers adopted a strategy known as “gay vague.” These ads featured subtle elements that would resonate with LGBTQ+ individuals while remaining unnoticed by heterosexual audiences. They often included same-sex individuals in domestic settings without explicitly indicating the nature of their relationship.

Recognizing that lesbians formed a significant segment of Subaru’s customer base, the Japanese company embraced the “gay vague” approach. In the mid-1990s, one of their print campaigns showcased Subarus with license plates such as “XENALVR” (referencing “Xena: Warrior Princess,” a beloved show among some lesbians) and “PTOWNIE” (alluding to Provincetown, a popular queer vacation destination). Another notable “gay vague” ad came from German automaker Volkswagen—during the coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997, they released a commercial featuring two men salvaging a discarded armchair. While queer viewers interpreted the men as a couple, straight viewers saw them as friends or roommates. Volkswagen’s response to the ad was unique—it didn’t mind if people perceived the characters as a gay couple, a significant shift in advertising.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton designated June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, marking the beginning of a new era in queer marketing.

The rise of the rainbow between 2000 and 2014 saw a significant shift in cultural attitudes towards queer individuals. The Human Rights Campaign introduced the Corporate Equality Index in 2002, which rated companies on their LGBTQ+ policies and practices. The fight for marriage equality gained momentum, with Massachusetts legalizing same-sex marriage in 2003, followed by Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, and New Hampshire. In 2011, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, banning gay and lesbian service members from the military, was repealed.

During this period, major corporations began paying more attention to and catering to the LGBTQ+ community, both within their workforce and beyond. Nike, Time Warner Cable, Boeing, and Microsoft were among the companies that openly expressed support for same-sex marriage, even amidst growing political tensions. Pride celebrations attracted corporate sponsorships, featuring queer individuals in ads as parents, romantic partners, and employees, rather than as mere punchlines. Amazon’s 2013 ad for Kindle Paperwhite stands out as one of the first to use the term “husband” instead of “boyfriend” when referring to a gay couple.

However, companies continued to weigh the risks and rewards of targeting queer consumers. Bob Witeck, an expert in LGBTQ+ marketing, revealed that one recurring question was, “How many straight customers do we lose by gaining a gay customer?” Fear of backlash heavily influenced this calculation. In 2012, J.C. Penney faced both praise and a boycott from One Million Moms, a conservative group, for featuring real queer couples with their children in catalogues for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

From 2015 to the present, the national legalization of same-sex marriage through the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges broke down barriers for companies previously hesitant to engage with the queer community. This landmark ruling gave permission to those who had not considered queer consumers seriously. Additionally, the rise of social media provided advertisers with a platform to cater to specific audiences, while younger consumers, who grew up valuing inclusivity and diversity, demanded more representation. These factors created an environment where major corporations loudly signaled their support for queer communities during Pride month by releasing rainbow-themed products and partnering with queer advocacy groups. Advertisements became more diverse, inclusive, and moved away from relying on stereotypes. Lesbians and transgender individuals began featuring more prominently.

In 2019, Gillette made waves with a Facebook ad featuring a real transgender artist and activist, Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, being taught to shave by his father. The ad beautifully captured a significant moment in the transition of a transgender person. Gillette affirmed, “As a company that values respect and inclusivity, we have a responsibility to promote inclusive portrayals of gender.”

However, in recent times, transgender representation in advertising has faced increasing controversy as anti-trans legislation and sentiment surges across the country. Hershey, for example, received backlash in March for featuring a transgender activist on packaging in Canada as part of a promotion.

It is clear that LGBTQ+ representation in advertising has come a long way, from being completely ignored to facing backlash and then gradually earning acceptance. Nevertheless, the fight for inclusivity continues, as corporations navigate the changing cultural landscape and strive to authentically represent the diverse experiences of queer individuals.


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