Why are advertisers still failing to represent lesbians?

Research shows lesbians are one of the least well-represented communities in advertising, putting brands at risk of alienating this group of consumers.

lesbians gay women LGBT

When is the last time you saw an ad featuring a gay woman? Chances are you might not even be able to recall a single commercial. And you wouldn’t be wrong thinking they are few and far between.

Research by Lloyds Banking Group published in 2016 showed that just 19% of people featured in advertising are from minority groups, and of those only 0.06% are from the LGBT community despite this group making up 1.7% of the British population.

Lloyds then surveyed consumers to get their opinions and of these minority groups, some 79% of people said they believe gay women are under-represented in advertising. This comes ahead of the number that believe bisexual people are under-represented (56%), gay men (49%) and disabled people (44%). Gay women taking part in the research felt the least accurately portrayed out of any group, with just 21% believing advertising reflects their lives.

Gay men have historically played a bigger role in advertising. As brands became aware of the gay market in the 1990s, the demographic – often described as the ‘pink pound’ – was seen as attractive to advertisers, due to the fact most male couples had a double income and, at that time, no children. This slowly led to the portrayal of gay men in advertising becoming more common. The portrayal of lesbians, however, remains infrequent and too often conforms to stereotypes.

Ana-Isabel Nölke spent three years at University of Edinburgh Business School studying the effects and influence of mainstream advertising and media on stigmatised communities as part of her PHD. Her research led her to identify four main types.

Lipstick lesbians – This was the main portrayal of lesbians in advertising up until four years ago. The women portrayed tended to be overly sexualised and feminine – and they often came in pairs. The fact that they’re lesbian tends to be portrayed as a huge tragedy for any men involved. For example, an ad by XXL All Sports United (see below) aired in the Netherlands shows a woman walking through an airport, being lusted after by every man. The end of the ad reveals she is actually a lesbian, much to the shock and disappointment of the male onlookers.

Femmes – This, Nölke argues, is “today’s main depiction”. These women are imagined as very feminine but are not sexualised. They tend to be shown as being happily married or in long-term relationships.

Domestic femme – Very feminine women who have a family. They are only shown in a domestic setting and are portrayed doing household chores or raising children. Gay men actually tend to be more frequently portrayed with families compared to lesbian couples.

Soft butch – This portrayal is more recent, and only started appearing two years ago. The women are still quite feminine, and still adhere to “common standards of what a woman is accepted to look like” – i.e. they have more “hipsteresque” short hair.

Benjamin Antoniou, who when speaking to Marketing Week was diversity and inclusion manager at Dentsu Aegis Network and is now global inclusion and diversity manager at GSK, says there has been a shift in recent years in terms of how lesbians are portrayed in advertising.

Instead of hyper-sexualised portrayals of lesbians, he believes advertisers have now gone “to the other end of the spectrum” and prefer to play it safe.

“Generally, the portrayal of LGBT people tends to be a bit safe and packaged in a neat and palatable way. It’s one specific type of LGBT family, who aren’t overly affectionate, butch or camp. They could basically pass as straight,” he says.

“It aims to show straight people that lesbian couples are just like them. There’s positives and negatives to that. On the one hand, we’re all human beings. But sometimes brands and advertisers are only prepared to use that type of portrayal and thereby ignores the experiences of lots of different LGBT people, like lesbian women of colour.”

One brand that decided not to play it safe was dating website Match.com, and it promptly faced a backlash. Its ad, showing two women undressing each other, was the third most complained about in 2016, according to the Advertising Standards Authority, after racking up 896 complaints.

Because of a lack of representation, naturally people are going to be more shocked. If advertising represented people equally, people might find it less offensive.

Claudia Carvell, the LGBT Foundation

Claudia Carvell, women’s programme co-ordinator at the LGBT Foundation, says this type of negativity could lead to more brands avoiding showing gay women in their advertising. But she says the opposite should be the case – brands should take the opportunity to lead change and challenge the norm.

“I can understand how [the backlash against Match.com] can be used as legitimisation by advertising companies not to represent lesbian women, as they don’t want their ads to be offensive. But it needs to work the other way around. Because of a lack of representation, naturally people are going to be more shocked and will find it less acceptable. If advertising represented people equally, people might find it less offensive,” she says.

Alienating gay women

There are also real-life consequences to not representing this consumer group properly in advertising. Carvell says she, like many of her peers, believes that advertising simply “isn’t for me as a gay woman”, and as a result doesn’t engage with many brands.

“I feel it’s not relevant to me because our representation is often so tokenistic, there is no way they represent the whole community because you only see one type. Often women are just presented to satisfy the male gaze – which reflects the maleness of the advertising industry I suppose. The problem is that so few ads feature gay women, so it will feel tokenistic until this changes,” she says.

Carvell’s comments show that brands need to avoid seeing the LGBT community as one homogenous group of people, and challenge perceptions of what it means to be a gay woman. Charities such as the LGBT Foundation can help with guidance and put marketers and their agencies in touch with the relevant consumer groups.

“We are not always white or femme women. Two butch women do get together, it’s not always butch and femme women pairing up. Sometimes gay women can be represented on their own, and not just as mothers or within families. Put us in positions of power,” Carvell says.

Of course, creative teams have to be more diverse too. GSK’s Antoniou believes there is still “quite a bit of work to do so gay women feel able to bring their whole self to work”, which will then filter down into their creative work.

It’s the age-old tale – if you want your output to be representative, your team has to be too.

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