In preparation for the 2023 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Adrienne Hayes, Google’s VP of marketing for global devices and services, spoke with Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD’s president and CEO, about why LGBTQ inclusion in marketing and media is good for business. Hayes is also a GLAAD board member and serves as global executive sponsor of Google’s LGBTQ employee resource group.
In recent years, companies have increasingly recognized the value that diverse, inclusive, and equitable marketing practices bring to their brands. For marketers, this has been deeply clarifying. Every creative choice we make has the power to shape how we see each other. Inherent in that responsibility is an incredible opportunity: to create work that positively and authentically reflects the world.
Americans are 2X more likely to buy or use a brand that publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding LGBTQ rights.
While historically excluded from advertising, the LGBTQ community in the U.S. has seen positive movement toward greater inclusion and diversity in brand marketing and increasing acceptance by the general public. A report published last December by GLAAD — the world’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer media advocacy organization — and the Edelman Trust Institute found that Americans are 2X more likely to buy or use a brand that publicly supports and demonstrates a commitment to expanding LGBTQ rights.
Along with this momentum, however, there have been plenty of setbacks. Marketers in the U.S. are likely familiar, for instance, with recent backlash experienced by one major retailer for displaying Pride Month merchandise, and the scrutiny experienced by a major brewing and beverage company after partnering with a transgender influencer. These mixed signals — rising consumer support on the one hand, push back on the other — can leave brands unsure of their own inclusive marketing plans.
The LGBTQ community’s size is not accurately reflected in ads, and current methods of inclusion are not always apparent to consumers.
So what does the data actually say about people’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community and what should brands be doing — with confidence — to honor their inclusive marketing commitments?
New research on LGBTQ representation underscores opportunities for brands
GLAAD recently released two studies that can be instructive. Its ninth annual Accelerating Acceptance study, which examines acceptance and attitudes toward LGBTQ Americans, showed that a record number of non-LGBTQ Americans support equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Support is quite literally at an all-time high. But an analysis of representation in advertising tells a different story.
This month, GLAAD’s Advertising Visibility Index — an inaugural research report offering a data-backed reality check on LGBTQ representation in U.S. advertising, along with prescriptive guidance for brands — indicated that the LGBTQ community’s size is not accurately reflected in ads and that current methods of inclusion are not always apparent to consumers. The takeaway is that there is room for improvement for the vast majority of brands.
Recently, I sat down with Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO at GLAAD, to discuss the two studies and identify actions that marketers can take today to make their marketing more inclusive.
We’re both members of the LGBTQ community, so these findings are affirming on a personal level. But what do you think it means for brands and marketers?
Sarah Kate Ellis: Our findings are really significant for marketers. For instance, we found that 3 out of 4 non-LGBTQ adults feel comfortable seeing LGBTQ people in advertisements, which seems to validate that the backlash to inclusive ad campaigns really is coming from a small, though loud, number of activists. Inclusion is not only good for the bottom line, but when consumers are exposed to LGBTQ people and their lives in the media, that exposure has a profound impact on shifting culture and changing sentiments. Sixty percent of non-LGBTQ adults agree that seeing LGBTQ people in ads make them more comfortable with people who are different than themselves.1 So inclusion actually creates a more accepting society.
Did you glean any insight into what’s particularly effective — or ineffective — when it comes to featuring LGBTQ people in ads?
Ellis: Yes. We’ve seen influencers and celebrities increasingly used in brand advertising, in general, and over 70% of inclusive ads we studied featured LGBTQ celebrities.2 But here’s what is interesting: When it comes to LGBTQ representation, inclusion of an LGBTQ celebrity is the least important factor for consumers, LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ. What they’re actually looking for are displays of empathy and humanity, followed by realistic storylines, like families sharing meals or couples holding hands.3 People want to see the everyday, human stuff. It’s realistic stories over celebrity endorsement.
At a time when 1 in 5 Gen Zers in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, the calls for inclusion will continue to grow and be louder than the critics.
We’ve all seen the recent blowback against large advertisers from a small segment of the population. Is that sentiment common?
Ellis: While it’s distressingly loud, it’s actually far from the norm. Only 17% of consumers say seeing LGBTQ representation in brand advertising would make them feel more negatively about a brand. And only 16% of consumers say they would be less likely to purchase that brand’s products or services.4 At a time when 1 in 5 Gen Zers in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ, the calls for inclusion will continue to grow and be louder than the critics.
So negativity exists, but it’s a really small portion of people who feel that way. Inclusive marketing is everywhere, and just because a few brands get called out by a loud minority, does not mean that inclusive marketing will end. While the headlines focused on a few brands that tried to appease critics by changing Pride campaigns, so many other brands stood their ground and that supposed backlash faded.
I couldn’t agree more. Did you discover anything in the findings that really surprised you?
Ellis: Absolutely. We posed all of these questions about LGBTQ representation, and while we know it’s become both more common in some circles, it’s become more contentious. But what was unexpected was that a lot of people aren’t even noticing LGBTQ inclusion. Nearly two-thirds of consumers believe LGBTQ representation is explicit enough to be noticed by most people, but less than 40% of consumers noticed the representation in LGBTQ inclusive Super Bowl ads.5 So even when it’s happening, people aren’t always aware of it.
70% of non-LGBTQ people want companies to show public support through hiring, advertising, and sponsorships.
Going forward, what do you think the key takeaways are for marketers looking to increase LGBTQ inclusion and to make it more effective?
Ellis: Well, for starters, this is bigger than marketing. Seventy percent of non-LGBTQ consumers want companies to show public support not just in advertising but in sponsorships and hiring as well.6
Beyond that, I think the biggest takeaway for me is the idea that representation means more than existence, more than the old “We’re here, we’re queer” model. Today, it’s more about being an integral part of your community. We’re your neighbors and your co-workers; we’re in your congregation and in your family. We’re part of the fabric of society, and marketers must show that. LGBTQ people have the same desires and needs as every other American. We buy cars and laundry detergent, and we worry about our kids and our bills just like everyone else. That’s the story folks in the LGBTQ community want told, and it’s the story that needs to be told.
I completely agree, and these findings are fascinating. Inclusive marketing (as we know it) is essential for Gen Z. Marketing is moving at the speed of culture, and we have to keep up.
At Google, we’re always striving to increase representation, especially during big moments, but it’s imperative this remains a focus year-round. These findings are a great reminder that our work is never done and that our approach to inclusive marketing can still be improved if we want to stay relevant now and in the future. For example, my team worked on Google Pixel’s Super Bowl ad this year, which featured queer artist Doja Cat. GLAAD tested this ad as part of the Advertising Index, and a majority of consumers who viewed it didn’t recognize any LGBTQ inclusion. It’s on us, and fellow advertisers, to seize the opportunity to tell more realistic, human LGBTQ stories.