Published on December 4, 2019, at 7:38 p.m.
by Christina Guyton.
Inclusivity is a value praised by many consumers, especially those belonging to the younger generation. Today, both targeting and including individuals of all races, ethnicities, body shapes and sizes, gender, and sexual orientation, among other identifiers, have created variety in the marketplace, straying from the “traditional” atomic family, featuring white, heterosexual parents and kids.
Oftentimes a vehicle for brands to preach diversity, the LGBTQ community was once underrepresented in media and remained on the fringe of marketing. The first LGBTQ characterization in mainstream advertising came in 1994 with a late-night Ikea commercial that avoided the “family hour” programming to appease disapprovers. In the ad, a gay couple discusses their differing interior design styles, how they met, living with one another and ultimately purchasing a serious dining room table from Ikea together.
While this ad faced boycotts from the American Family Association, 25 years later, inclusivity is one of the biggest trends as a means to reach all audiences. If done correctly, including diverse groups yields a twofold result: gaining the favor of those who value inclusion and political correctness, like the younger generation, and looping in the queer population to the greater acceptance discussion of our society. But at what point do these displays of acceptance shift from admirable to manipulative?
Mona Elyafi, founder and senior public relations account executive of Los Angeles-based ILDK Media, is considered an expert in the realm of LGBTQ focused PR. As a member of the community, she spoke to her personal opinion of queer-centric campaigns: “There has been an increase in the amount of brands catering to the LGBTQ+ community. It does not always feel authentic. I often find myself asking, ‘What’s the real motive behind the support?’ … While some people, I’m sure, do appreciate it, I’m more looking at it on the PR [and] marketing stance, and I feel that it’s not always a genuine show of support but rather a marketing opportunity to tap into a market that has shown to be profitable for businesses. Call me a skeptic, but the idea of giving back to the LGBTQ+ community one month [Pride month] during the year by producing rainbow products and putting out LGBTQ-themed ads does feel exploitative and opportunistic.”
Matthew Skallerud, president of New York-based Pink Media, longtime LGBTQ marketing specialist and community member, provided a similar answer, stating that many “people have this perception that brands only promote themselves to the LGBTQ community during Pride month,” then forget about the group the rest of the year. He continued by labeling this as “the trickiest situation we’re in today.” He said, “It’s confusing, and it’s all about perception. Perception as such that it’s a hot topic, and I don’t know if it will always stay a hot topic, but personally we’re not real fans of it; we don’t pursue that angle with our clients.”
Personal feelings aside, sometimes inclusion boils down to a good business strategy. In America alone, roughly 11.3 million people identify as a member of the LGBTQ community; a brand would be foolish to disregard this sector of society. Market research shows that LGBTQ members are particularly loyal, with $3.7 trillion in purchasing power. This data is hard to overlook, and as public relations practitioners, we evaluate all facets of reality in order to position our clients in the most favorable light.
Regarding Pride month specific initiatives, Skallerud said it’s “kind of a really good PR spin, you have to admit. Somebody came up with [Pride month marketing], and it really resonated and at the end of the day, media companies and others have capitalized on that.”
He further explained that “there’s a lot of companies that have been advertising and promoting themselves to the marketplace all year round … but [Pride month] has really grown into this just behemoth, because in some ways [the queer community] has come of age … and now more and more companies want to work with us.”
Skallerud also pointed out that, from a business perspective, Pride month is seasonal. Using Fashion Week and film festivals like Cannes and Sundance as comparative examples, seasonal events cannot demand year-round media coverage and attention from sponsoring companies and consumers alike.
Elyafi represents many individuals in the entertainment industry belonging to the LGBTQ community. In gaining earned media for her clients, Elyafi said, “the queer angle is there, but it has to go beyond that because we’ve spoken about the queer element way too much now; it’s getting old.” She continued, “I feel like reporters, justifiably, are looking for something more. [The queer element] helps at certain times, especially if you’re going after an LGBTQ media outlet … but it’s not the story so much anymore.”
As for the events she promotes, Elyafi has been evolving with the cultural and social changes happening within the community. She represented Dinah Shore Weekend for 10 years. Speaking to the changing landscape of acceptance, she stated that “nowadays, when you talk about an event, it is pivotal to specify that it’s inclusive and diverse and welcoming of everybody. Going back to The Dinah, 10 years ago, it was OK for me to call it ‘the biggest lesbian event in the world,’ but as we made strides and moved our focus to inclusivity and diversity we had to adjust our verbiage. … [People] would question whether the event was inclusive and diverse enough because lesbian is just the L of LGBTQ.” She continued, “Of course we would welcome all members of the community, even straight individuals. … It doesn’t matter how you identify as long as you join the fun and partake in the feel-good experience and community building in good spirits. The younger generation is certainly demanding that we be accountable for what we say and how we say it.”
Skallerud also touched on the generational elements found within the inclusion conversation: “I wouldn’t even use the word ‘acceptance.’ At the end of the day, we aren’t asking to be accepted; that’s like asking for a favor, and it’s gone beyond that. … What most LGBT people are looking for is that it’s not even an issue.” He explained, “It’s who you are as a person, and that’s fundamentally where we’re headed, which means it’s generational. The young people today seem to exude those sentiments much more.”
Positioning the LGBTQ conversation as a nonissue requires everyone to shift their views from what makes us different to how we’re all human. Elyafi, personally, wants to see this change: “I would really love to be in a world where we don’t need to have all those categories and labels. Certainly in my field, I want to see us talk about a story because [it] makes us human and resonates with each and every one of us; not because we’re gay or a woman and lack visibility and/or are underrepresented. I spend an awful amount of time crafting PR pitches to change minds and change hearts, travailing to make the LGBTQ+ agenda move into mainstream culture. That storyline needs to change. We should all be free to be who we are and respect each other for our own individual uniqueness.”
Brands can facilitate this shift by taking a more human approach as a means to control the conversation, normalizing the LGBTQ community. Skallerud spoke to user-generated content as an answer for brands: “You have to be fully cognizant and aware that there are thousands of posts being made by individuals on Instagram and Twitter that are very open and out there … and these posts are really good.” He continued, “When all [brands] do is post and talk about themselves, that becomes very bland and stale … but as a user, we’re typically looking for a broader perspective on things … and user-generated content provides that broader perspective.”
Unifying LGBTQ members with the greater community is a task that technology has already seamlessly performed. Skallerud said that technology used to find target audiences does not see sexual orientation, but only behaviors. Finding fans of lesbian theater, for example, does not yield only lesbians as the target audience, but all interested parties. Skallerud said, “You’re automatically filtering out and finding the allies using the technology today. … It’s just happening naturally.” He continued, “You’re reaching people more based on their behavior, and knowing that gays or lesbians or transgender people will fall into that means that in some way you’re doing LGBT marketing. It’s broader by default, and it’s kind of exciting where it’s at nowadays.”
Whether you’re a professional tasked to create an LGBTQ centric campaign to run during Pride month or assigned to represent a client offering products specific to the queer community, remember that we’re all humans, seeking inclusion. An identifier like sexual orientation should not label a person as a potential ally in the effort to be politically correct. LGBTQ members, or any person considered to be diverse, should be included in ads, social conversations or media coverage for the sake of a kinder world that respects all.