June 15, 2023

A Brief History of LGBTQ+ Marketing

To accompany the release of Thinking Queerly, our latest ThreeSixty° white paper, we will be publishing a range of articles exploring LGBTQ+ issues. Thinking Queerly is a deep-dive on queer culture and its growing influence on the mainstream.

By John Livesey

The New Normal

As Pride month becomes a mainstay in the business calendar, LGBTQ+ marketing is now a key part of any brand strategy. This new normal reflects growing recognition of LGBTQ+ individuals, experiences and the role they play in defining culture.

With the recognition of these individuals, also comes the recognition of their purchasing power. The ‘Pink Pound’ is a term used to describe the spending power of LGBTQ+ people, one which was estimated to have surpassed £6 billion in 2022. (The Crunch)

Whilst LGBTQ+ marketing may feel like a recent phenomenon, there is a long history of brands working to integrate themselves with their queer consumers. This history may often be forgotten but its traces can reveal clues about the most successful ways for brands to engage queer audience with integrity and authenticity.

Baby Steps

The first brands to start directly targeting queer audiences did so via ads in gay male publications such as The Advocate and After Dark. It is hard to appreciate just how unprecedented this move was at the time; when the majority of brands refused association with the gay press, these brands weren’t tied down by the fear of alienating their heterosexual consumer base.

One of the first brands to begin reaching out to gay consumers was Absolut. They recognised that alcohol products played an important role in queer nightlife and so started to integrate subtle but recognisable appeals to queer consumers in their advertising. For instance, in 1986, the drinks company released a poster featuring the artwork of Keith Haring, a famous gay artist and AIDS campaigner. To most American consumers, it was merely an ad highlighting the work of an underground painter, but to LGBTQ+ audiences, it was a statement of recognition. 

Keith Haring Absolut Haring (Signed Print) 1986
Keith Haring, Absolut Vodka (1986)

United Colours

In 1982, Benneton hired Oliviero Toscani as creative director. From this moment on Toscani would go on to produce a number of iconic ad campaigns, including the first mainstream ad to feature a same-sex and interracial lesbian couple, released in 1990.

Toscani was a friend of controversy. He was particularly passionate about raising awareness about the AIDS crisis, at a time when people with AIDS were largely ostracised. Promoting safe sex, one ad recreated the Olympic rings with coloured condoms. No models nor any of the brand’s clothes were on display but the message was clear. In another bold, and highly controversial move, Toscani recoloured the infamous photograph taken by Therese Frare of David Kirby on his deathbed. With a mixed reception, David Kirby’s father Bill stated “Benetton is not using us, we’re using Benetton” (Time Magazine)

Whilst not entirely popular, Toscani’s strategy highlighted the way forward for brands to 'queer' marketing; taking bold points of view that resituated the boundaries of acceptability.

Unfortunately, other brands were not so bold. Whilst advertisers became increasingly aware of benefits associated with advertising to LGBTQ+ consumers, most only inserted subtle, barely discernible messages into their campaigns, without explicitly acknowledging queer experiences. This tactic is now known as the ‘gay vague’. 

A 1997 Volkswagen ad, for instance, showed two men picking up furniture on their way home subtly hinted that they were a couple. However, to most outside of the LGBTQ+ community, the reference would have been lost. 

How Benetton Mastered the Art of Going Viral Through Causevertising | by  Darpan Mehla | Medium
Oliviero Toscani, 'Blanket' (1990)

Fresh Start

In the same year as the Volkswagen Ad, Ikea released its 'Dining Room Table' campaign. This was the first national TV ad to clearly feature a gay couple; cited by many as a key turning point for gay advertising. What makes it so ground-breaking is that the couple were presented in a straight-forward and honest way, without recourse to out-dated tropes. 

Ikea’s advert led a legacy of many more positive and respectful campaigns throughout the 2000s. By 2004, it was reported that 35% of the top 100 U.S. companies had created ads that directly targeted LGBTQ+ consumers. This only increased further after the legalisation of gay marriage in the US in 2015, and several countries in Europe around the same time. A watershed moment; there was a burst of queer advertising, now featuring a broader spectrum of queer people. 

Indeed, what sets the 2010s apart is this growing appreciation of just how diverse the LGBTQ+ community was, a change reflected in the willingness to use the now commonplace BIPOC, trans and intersex-inclusive pride flag. For instance, Nike featured transgender athlete Chris Moser in a campaign shared during the 2016 Olympics and Coke’s 2019 Superbowl ad referenced Non-binary pronouns.

However, as the current waves of conservative backlash to LGBTQ+ visiblity and legislature remind us, this progress can easily be reversed.  Brands now have an opportunity to show how deep their solidarity with queer consumers runs. There is more influential and diverse queer talent on show than ever before. Tapping into this cultural wellspring is one way brands can continue expanding the possibilities of how they engage with their queer consumers. The future is queer.