Agencies Must Do More on LGBTQI+ Issues

Picture: Loren Elliott/Reuters

Advertising campaigns are starting to feature more characters who identify as gay or transgender, but there is still a sense of inauthenticity or misrepresentation of queer people in advertisements.

This has prompted groundbreaking research by Khangelani Dziba from the agency RAPT Creative. He says while the global advertising industry is adopting a “queer identity lens” as part of its approach to crafting creative brand strategies, these are often grounded in simply chasing the “pink pound” rather than engendering genuine social change.

This year global fast-food brand Burger King found itself in trouble in Austria after an ad for a product called “Pride Whopper” featured sandwiches with two top or two bottom buns. Members of the LGBTQI+ community labelled the ad as tone deaf. A company apology said in part it “messed up and didn’t check with community members on different interpretations of the product”.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), businesses understand the impact that LGBTQ+ representation can have on advancing equality and acceptance.  The forum says more than 90% of agencies and advertisers agree that companies can make consumers more familiar with diverse groups of people and break down social barriers through representation.

Dziba tells the FM the pink economy is now an integral part of economic growth, contributing an estimated $16-trillion to the world economy. In South Africa, the pink rand is estimated to be worth R152bn a year.

Dziba believes most brands need to accelerate their engagement with the queer community because previous attempts have been unsuccessful. “In the scramble to attract members of the community, some brands have reflected its hyper extremes, which has offended or negated the multiple layers of the community that exist.”

More importantly, it is critical for brands to engage with the queer community, to not be seen as “pink washing” and purely targeting the community for economic gain. The aim should be to build a meaningful relationship that is about bringing about change in society.

Is the South African ad industry aware of the nuances within the community?

Dziba says: “My study revealed that, while the industry is aware of the community, it does not have enough knowledge to be able to boldly integrate the community as part of communication or marketing plans outside of International Pride Month in June and October in South Africa, where we observe various initiatives to advocate for visibility and equality.

“There are some brands which are committed to engaging the community and representing it with its various nuances, but more should be done. Too often the conversation is left in the hands of the few but, for there to be change, all stakeholders, brand leaders and decision-makers need to be invested in the conversation and initiatives.”

He singles out brands including  Nando’s, Stimorol, Nike and Jägermeister that are making attempts to better understand the queer community.

So while some brands are making progress, are they striking the right tone with their messaging? In the main, says Dziba, the answer is no. “There are adverts that integrate queer identities in their communication in ways that make the community feel well represented. But you also have those that get it wrong, mostly because they play on nuances that come across as gimmicky with no real message. Getting this wrong results in messages that are too political, which in turn can result in cancel-culture behaviour.”

To try to improve the process he believes brands should think more about hiring team members that represent the queer community, creating an environment and culture where open dialogue about profiling and segmentation between them and their agency partners is possible, co-creating solutions with stakeholders that speak authentically to the community, and strength-testing advertisements with the community as a way of gaining rich insights.

While most brands would recognise the importance of an authentic voice in the queer community, there is a risk of alienating a broader economic cohort.

Dziba believes brands have little choice these days but to have an opinion and to stand for something. “Historically, brands have shied away from having an opinion about issues that affect society. But contemporary research and academic efforts by leading brand leadership scholars have suggested that contemporary brands need to move beyond functional benefits and lean into the things that matter for consumers. This does not come without risk or backlash, as Nike found out when it opted to address women and culture issues. But because the brand took a firm stance on these issues  and authentically leant into them, they gained favour in the marketplace.”

He says genuine queer community reflection in an ad or campaign means participation and representation in all layers of planning and production of the ad or campaign.  Creating more seats around the table will allow the community to influence subject matter.