2SLGBTQ+ Representation in Advertising

As in other media, 2SLGBTQ+ people have gained a greater and more widely visible presence within the advertising world, with ad agencies courting the “Pink Dollar.” This is not surprising, considering that the 2SLGBTQ+ audience is estimated to be worth around $917 million in buying power.[1]

The marketing trend of seeking out 2SLGBTQ+ money is seen by many as a double-edged sword: on one hand, it’s an opportunity for queer people to legitimize themselves through their purchasing power and to bring about equal rights by demonstrating how valuable they can be to mainstream companies; on the other, it opens up issues such as ghettoization, further marginalization of non-middle class 2SLGBTQ+ people and the overshadowing of civil rights issues by questions of financial strength.

The following section examines three main types of advertising that relate to 2SLGBTQ+ people: ads that feature queer people and market to a heterosexual mainstream, ads that target 2SLGBTQ+ people on behalf of companies within the heterosexual mainstream and ads produced by 2SLGBTQ+-oriented companies for a queer demographic.

Mainstream companies courting 2SLGBTQ+ dollars

A common reaction to marketing towards 2SLGBTQ+ people has been to see this as a sign of greater acceptance, but acceptance of what? Adidas, in 2018, launched the “pride pack” section of their website where buyers could buy all sorts of pride merchandise, seemingly communicating the company’s support for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals. Yet Adidas was also one of the major sponsors of that year’s World Cup held in Russia, a country with anti- 2SLGBTQ+ laws.[2] Similarly, in 2018 YouTube was found to be running anti- 2SLGBTQ+ ads alongside  2SLGBTQ+ content creators’ channels,[3] and Walmart – which in 2021 launched a line of Pride-themed merchandise – donated almost $60,000 US to legislators who sponsored anti-trans bills.[4] This illustrates the limit of “pink dollar” power: many companies are more than eager to be tolerant and accepting of the enormous buying power of 2SLGBTQ+ people, but will also support, or tolerate, anti-2SLGBTQ+ actions when it’s in their financial interest.

2SLGBTQ+ in mainstream ads

Advertising has come a long way in representing 2SLGBTQ+ people in ways that aren’t always negative or ridiculous: for example, this ad from Renault in 2019 features a respectful storyline of a love story between a lesbian couple.[5]

Representation in advertising has definitely increased overall: a 2021 study found that 50 percent of marketers feature 2SLGBTQ+ casting in their campaigns.[6] However, these may not always be the most visible or prestigious ads. GLAAD’s Visibility Project found that just 1.8 percent of characters in ads at the Cannes Lion Film Festival were 2SLGBTQ+. A large reason for this is because 61 percent of advertisers and 28 percent of agencies are afraid of public backlash, and so require tools and resources to help them create more inclusivity in their future campaigns. GLAAD claims that visibility is “a business imperative”[7] because “1 in 6 members of Generation Z (18-23)” identify as 2SLGBTQ+. They note that for economic growth in businesses, it’s important to understand that “this growth will only continue as notions of gender and identity expand.”[8]

There is evidence that advertisers can include more overtly queer content without alienating mainstream audiences. The impact of the TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race has led to its participants being used in commercials for brands including Starbucks, McDonalds, Ikea and Tazo Tea to promote inclusivity. This use of “dragvertising,” as it has been coined, shows “a group of people who aren’t bothered by gender definitions, sexuality definitions, or ethnicity definitions defining them… that’s what perhaps has been confounding.”[9] Nevertheless, online advertisers frequently include terms such as “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “drag queen” in blocklists aimed at preventing internet users from seeing “inappropriate” ads, making it difficult for 2SLGBTQ+ websites and influencers to monetize – and online advertisers reluctant to include queer characters or themes in their ads.[10]

2SLGBTQ+ commercials and customers

While it may be tempting to think that these issues are not present when 2SLGBTQ+ marketers target their own, this is not the case: even 2SLGBTQ+ marketers can sometimes forget that queer people don’t share a monolithic identity. A cursory glance through the comments section of the website AdRespect illustrates that the 2SLGBTQ+ community is divided on how it feels it should represent itself or be represented by others. Moreover, respondents on the website who agree that a particular ad is hurtful or offensive don’t necessarily agree on why it is so.

In a study of the effects of 2SLGBTQ+ advertising on 2SLGBTQ+-oriented media, Katherine Sender looked at just how much our own assumptions about media, sexuality and advertising contribute to a type of advertising that presents a very specific type of ideal 2SLGBTQ+ consumer. Her research into advertising by and for 2SLGBTQ+ people turns the notion that “sex sells” on its head, asking “When might sex not sell?” – or, to put it another way: when does not-sex sell?[11]

2SLGBTQ+ advertisers within queer media are aware of and operate under the notion that 2SLGBTQ+ people lose legitimacy and status within the larger society when they are seen to be fully sexually active. The de-sexualization of 2SLGBTQ+ media is often articulated in terms of an attempt to make the community seem more “respectable.” Sender’s view is that 2SLGBTQ+ advertisers are hyper-conscious of stereotypes and often work so hard against them that they can actually do harm by forcibly excluding huge portions of the 2SLGBTQ+ community from the frame of legitimacy.

Working for change

Based on Sender’s research, it’s clear that the first place to start when it comes to changing the narrative surrounding 2SLGBTQ+ advertising is with the advertisers and the advertising agencies themselves. As part of their Visibility Project, GLAAD found disparities between what consumers and advertisers believe, and therefore what they feel they can and should include in their advertisements. For example, their study found that “despite the understood social benefits, the majority of advertisers and agencies perceive risk with inclusion of LGBTQ people and scenarios in advertising,” with 61 percent of respondents fearing an “an inauthentic execution of LGBTQ people and scenarios would lead to a larger backlash than not featuring them in ads at all.”[12] As with other industries, the key to better representation is to have more 2SLGBTQ+ people with decision-making power behind the scenes; unfortunately, many who do work in the ad industry say it’s still frequently hostile to them.[13]


[1] Auten, D & Schneider, J (2018) The $1 Trillion Dollar Market Executives are Ignoring. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/debtfreeguys/2018/08/14/the-1-trillion-marketing-executives-are-ignoring/?sh=6844d3bfa97f

[2] Abad-Santos, A (2018). How LGBTQ Pride Month became a Branded Holiday. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2018/6/25/17476850/pride-month-lgbtq-corporate-explained

[3] Hills, M (2018). YouTube is running ‘Anti-LGBT’ ads alongside videos by LGBT creators. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/meganhills1/2018/06/04/youtube-anti-lgbt-ads/?sh=12b8a79d4f73

[4] Sittig, A. “Pride Merch Won’t Save Trans Youth – Corporations Should Fight Anti-LGBTQ Bills.” Swift Headline. Retrieved from https://swiftheadline.com/pride-merch-wont-save-trans-youth-corporations-should-fight-anti-lgbtq-bills/

[5] Kalonaros, R. (2021) “From Secret Code to Stereotype: The Evolution of LGBTQ+ Representation in Advertising.” Adweek.

[6] Craft, E.J. (2021) “ANA Report Shows 50percent of Marketers Feature LGBTQ Casting In Their Campaigns.” Ad Age.

[7] (2021) The Visibility Project. GLAAD. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/visibility-project

[8] (2021) The Visibility Project. GLAAD. Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/visibility-project

[9] Deighton, K (2018). Dragvertising; charting queens’ slow rise to commercial influence. The Drum. Retrieved from https://www.thedrum.com/news/2018/10/31/dragvertising-charting-queens-slow-rise-commercial-influence

[10] McCarthy, J. (2021) “Blocklists are still failing advertisers and minority media.” The Drum. Retrieved from https://www.thedrum.com/news/2021/12/15/blocklists-are-still-failing-advertisers-and-minority-media

[11] Sender, K (2003). Sex Sells: Sex, Class, and Taste in Commercial Gay and Lesbian Media. University of Pennsylvania 1:1. Retrieved from https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1114&context=asc_papers

[12] (2021) Advertiser and Agency Perspectives on LGBTQ Inclusion Study. Retrieved from GLAAD. https://www.glaad.org/sites/default/files/P%26G_GLAAD_AdvertisingResearch2021.pdf

[13] Sherwood, I. “Transgender and nonbinary people face an uphill climb for representation in the ad industry.” AdAge. Retrieved from https://adage.com/article/agency-news/transgender-and-nonbinary-people-face-uphill-climb-representation-ad-industry/2221156