What’s Pride got to do with it? Exploring gay men’s views on representation

Will brands use their platform to become true allies for the LGBTQIA+ community, or risk accusations of ‘pink-washing’ based on superficial support?

London Pride
Source: Shutterstock

It’s Pride month and the conversation about allyship, Pride flags and representation is back on. The role of brands and their marketers will be scrutinised to determine whether their support for the LGBTQIA+ community is genuine.

Pride itself will also be a subject of conversation – is it a protest or celebration? Does brand involvement add value? The visibility of Pride has unquestionably increased, but WARC research in 2020 found that representation of the LGBTQIA+ community has declined.

On first appearances, it would seem that gay men and the wider LGBTQIA+ community have equality, but the statistics on hate crime, suicide and accurate representation tell another story. In 2022, the Home Office reported that homophobic hate crimes have increased annually since 2017 and LGBTQIA+ youth are more than twice as likely to contemplate suicide.

Representation is important and research has shown that the representation of gay men in marketing falls below expectations.

My research with The University of Warwick examined how gay men feel that they and their community are being represented by brands, both in the context of Pride and beyond.

I chose to talk to gay men as they are seen to be the best represented LGBTQIA+ group. So, if they are being misrepresented, the story is likely to be much worse for the rest of the LGBTQIA+ community. Here I want to share the actionable insights from this research to further the conversation and contribute to the agenda for change.

Research project

My research was conducted in 2023 with gay men who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s through the rise of the AIDS epidemic. This period coincided with the introduction of Section 28 – legislation which stated it was illegal to promote being gay. These men spent their youth being misrepresented through negative stereotypes that were overly feminine, hypersexualised and bitchy. As a result, the men felt ‘abnormal’ and were widely rejected by society.

These men formed beliefs about their sexuality and identity in an incredibly negative media landscape. Using in-depth interviews and consideration of relevant adverts and imagery, I set out to understand their feelings and attitudes towards the current representation of gay men, specifically through Pride month (June), when representation should arguably be at its best.

Part one: Imagery

A key debate is how gay men are represented through imagery. After years of negative portrayal, media evolved to show gay men in scenarios usually associated with heterosexual couples, such as traditional family settings and monogamous relationships.

Recently there’s been a movement towards more fluid representation, removing some of the traditional heterosexual milestones, such as buying a home, marriage, children and grandchildren. But what’s ‘right’?

McCain’s ‘We are family’ and The National Lottery’s ‘Pockets’ campaigns show gay couples across those typically heterosexual life stages that include falling in love, marriage and family dinners. These ads proved popular for reflecting their realities and aspirations.

Pockets received special praise for covering the difficulties many gay men found in coming out to their parents during the negative ‘90s narratives regarding AIDS and Section 28.

“My biggest fear was that I’d be rejected. And I’m sure many gay men who’ve seen that will feel what I’m feeling right now, which hurts. Remembering the fear and the uncertainty is massively powerful.”

By contrast, Virgin Atlantic’s ‘See the world differently’ campaign is flamboyant, confident and colourful, proudly showing that people can be who they want to be. In my research, this campaign was admired and praised for hopefully inspiring younger generations.

However, it wasn’t perceived as relatable. The past feelings of shame and rejection are powerful emotions, and some of that trauma still sits with the gay men who lived through that time.

Role models have also evolved from stereotyping all gay men as drag queens or overly camp (think Lily Savage and Larry Grayson) to those who are more relatable (Russell Tovey, Luke Evans and Olly Alexander). Russell and Luke were popular among the participants for being confident gay men who didn’t need to ‘camp it up’. Again, this reflects the desires of this generation to blend in rather than stand out.

Across my research, all the participants expressed a strong desire to see better and wider representation across all marginalised groups. Tinder’s ‘Commitment’ series was cited as a strong example of non-prescriptive inclusivity – something the sample want to see more often.

“The slogans aren’t about, necessarily, whether it’s gay or straight, but the people that they’ve used in the ads are a mix of gay, straight and different kinds of people. Their approach is quite good because they’ve got all kinds of very different people in all kinds of ways.”

Key takeaways

Queer and fluidity are currently popular words associated with identity. However, there are still those who prefer fixed labels and traditionally heterosexual representation.

Historical research has shown that consumers like to buy from people who look like them. More recent studies conclude that consumers would now rather buy from brands that represent their views, such as inclusivity.

Consider the power of role models and how they can set a tone for your brand.

Part two: Corporate action

Many brands add the Pride flag to their advertising and marketing, often with the genuine intention of supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, but without the understanding of what those actions mean.

This can lead to the brand facing accusations of rainbow-washing and, more harmfully, it can create an illusion of equality and acceptance which doesn’t exist in reality. To add to this, my research showed that gay men were fully aware that they had been targeted for the ‘pink pound’, leading to increased cynicism as to the real reason that brands display the flag.

“I’m just curious what the agenda is. What do they get out of it? It’s a moral thing.”

Transforming logos for Pride has lost brand impact and become ‘rainbow-washing’

During the AIDS epidemic, the Pride flag was used to show safe spaces for the LGBTQIA+ community, spaces now taken over by brands who dilute that symbolism. Rather than organically promoting LGBTQIA+ colleagues and customers across the year, there’s a singular focus on June, which according to the research, makes it feel like being gay is a promotable fad.

“Pride month is the worst. A [coffee brand] was doing Pride water bottles. It was a stripey bottle, but the brand was written massively. For me, you’re just making money out of the gays.”

LGBTQIA+ consumers have a strong affinity with brands who truly support the LGBTQIA+ community.

For instance, Absolut Vodka has continued to support LGBTQIA+ interests and activities since the ‘90s. Additionally, Unilad launched a campaign in 2020 to show that blood donated by gay men was just as safe as any other group. Unilad used its considerable platform for positive change. Although none of the research participants were aware of the campaign, they unanimously supported Unilad’s effort to engage in authentic activism.

Key takeaways

Don’t focus solely on Pride month to show your support for the LGBTQIA+ community. Ensure your support is deeper than displaying a pride flag or featuring a gay colleague.

Think about how your brand can impact and address some of the narratives that enable LGBTQIA+ related hate crimes and abuse.

Part three: Symbolism of the flag

As part of my research, I looked at how changes to the Pride flag were received by gay men. The Pride flag has evolved into the Intersex-Inclusive Pride flag and a further 50 flags represent each of the LGBTQIA+ identities.

The Intersex-Inclusive Pride flag recognises ‘natural diversity in sexual orientation, romantic orientation and orientations that exist outside of those; as well as natural diversity in gender identity and expression, and natural diversity in sex characteristics’. Participants in my research believe this one flag is the right solution, but that the community itself needs to evolve to better represent all groups.

But they also realised why each group would want their own flag to maximise their own presence. Gay men still most strongly identify with the 1979 six-colour flag, as this was their flag used as a symbol of collective resistance against the national hate that surrounded the AIDS epidemic.

The importance of representing trans people in advertising

Whatever brands decide to do, the choice and use of flags is a point of contention in the LGBTQIA+ community and something brands should be aware of when adopting this visual symbolism. By using the six-colour version or earlier iterations of the Pride flag, brands may unintentionally contribute to the erasure of marginalised groups.

Despite these varied views on the flags, the respondents believe that a more inclusive stance is needed for the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly regarding the discrimination faced by the trans community.

“You’re about the person. You could be a boy or a girl or something in between. It’s just about the person.”

Given the traumatic events that many gay men faced during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the desire to be socially reserved and not promote their gay identity is still strong. This competes with their desire to be out and proud, supporting the diverse LGBTQIA+ community.

The emotions that sit behind their identity are complex and brands have the opportunity to respect all the different views rather than focusing on any singular aspect.

Key takeaways

Think about what flag your brand is using and why. Who are you supporting? Are you really supporting all the groups that it represents?

Consider the narrative to which you’re contributing.

What next?

My research showed that representation in advertising is more important than representation in TV and film, as advertising represents brands creating what they see as a life worth emulating.

Although adverts are a powerful force in influencing societal views, it’s understood that corporations and brands can’t physically solve political tensions and inequities.

However, they can understand their influence and impact to better support the need for inclusion. There’s already excellent work being done through the Advertising Association’s ‘All In’ action plan, as well as Outvertising which strives to make UK marketing and advertising completely LGBTQIA+ inclusive and other organisations.

Will today’s brands take a different approach this Pride month? Brands have the power to use their platform to be true allies for the LGBTQIA+ community year-round and to finally dismantle the damaging stereotypes which have prevailed for decades.

Jen Gleadow is a director at Milestone Creative, a design and branding agency in Buckinghamshire. This research formed the cornerstone of her MA in Sociology at the University of Warwick.