Agency exec on scarcity of LGBT people in ads: ‘People fear the bigoted minority’

As Kendall Jenner’s ad catastrophe at Pepsi illustrates, those who hitch their wagon to socio-political causes (however vague) can, and do, get burned.

Agencies’ fear of this, according to chief strategy officer at Karmarama and PrideAM founder Mark Runacus, is what’s holding the industry back from better representing its audiences, including those lumped together in the LGBT umbrella: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and other variations of sexual and gender identity.

Case in point: According to research from Lloyd’s Banking Group, which examined 1,300 ads from 40 top-spending brands, LGBT people make up just .06 percent of people in ads.

We spoke to Runacus about his thoughts on the issue. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

You’ve said previously that agency planners are holding back representation of LGBT people in advertising. Tell me more.
It comes from both sides, but agencies are more often the blockage than the client. This happens for two reasons: ignorance and fear. First, there is an expectation you only include LGBT content if you’re targeting the so-called “pink pound.” But the community doesn’t like being ghettoized, and that term is actually offensive. We don’t think of ourselves in that way. Second, people often fear the bigoted minority who will create a backlash.

Give me an example. 
They know who they are, and they’ll have heard my comments. Hopefully they have managed to work through that ignorance.

So some planners still see LGBT audiences as niche?
Often it’s because they think their brand isn’t relevant to LGBT audiences. It’s right that as planners we should think of how to target and better communicate with an audience, but it’s wrong to only include LGBT content if you are targeting LGBT people. We know that 49 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t identify as straight or gay; this is part of everyday life for them. So for modern brands with purpose, it’s important to use this diverse content to create better engagement.

What are the challenges for agencies wanting to get this right?
The main challenge is understanding how to communicate without falling into stereotypes. But LGBT people don’t always have to be front and center, just part of real life. When it’s done well, like the recent Lloyd’s Bank advert, it’s fantastic. It can be done.

Does a lack of diversity inside agencies make this harder? You’ve mentioned before that the ‘scariness’ of making inclusive ads is amplified by agencies that aren’t diverse.
Agencies are still not inclusive enough. There are leaders in the advertising community who are predominantly white, middle-class men. It’s proven that when you remove homogeneity, you create an environment that’s more creative. If we’re reflective of our target audience, I’m confident we’re much less likely to witness this fear and ignorance I’ve talked about.

How so?
Agencies should challenge the existing recruitment process, for example, by reviewing CVs anonymously and doing one-on-one interviews. Young people aren’t convinced in you saying you’re actually doing it; they want to see it. For instance, does your website look inclusive? Do you have gender-neutral toilets? This all shows you’ve paid attention to the detail. However, I’m optimistic as I’m surrounded by young people who believe we have to change.

Do brands care enough? 
There are loads of people who want to do this because trust in advertising is at an all-time low. Brands are vying for attention, and if they do this authentically and sensitively, they will connect better with consumers. But brands aren’t challenging agencies enough to accurately reflect their current and aspirational audience with an understanding of how progressive the U.K. population is today. In their briefs, brands need to include a challenge. Agencies will then be empowered to respond.

What’s your advice to brands?
It’s important that you’re authentic, which starts by looking within. If consumers can see that the brand’s external manifestation is a genuine representation of what happens inside its walls, they shouldn’t be fearful. If companies have an LGBT network, they should ask how they want to be portrayed and use them as a powerful insight and advocacy tool. Then, in an unlikely event of a backlash, they’ll have ready-made supporters.

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