Voices

Brands need to work harder to challenge negative stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community

Michael Brown, Partner at UM on why it’s time for brands and media platforms, both streaming and linear, to step up and take a stand against outdated tropes.

Michael Brown, UM

Partner of Insight & Cross-Culture

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It’s A Sin’s unfiltered look at the AIDS epidemic is likely to have spurred conversations about sexuality in living rooms around the country. I’d like to hope many of these were much less uncomfortable than they would have been for our protagonists back in the 1980s. The fact that the show has broken All 4 streaming records, reaching 6.5 million viewers in its first two weeks, suggests there’s a far greater appetite for LGBTQ+ narratives than when Russell T. Davies’ Queer As Folk came out, so to speak, in 1999.

While this can only be a good thing, not all media representations are quite so enlightened. UM recently carried out a survey with suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) and social publisher JOE Media, looking at the impact of media stereotypes on men. The results reveal that gay, bisexual and queer men, in particular, experience particular stigmas. For instance, 39% still feel the media depicts them as ‘perverted’, 29% as ‘sexually unhealthy’ and 26% ‘promiscuous’. 

The fact that more than a third of queer men feel shamed for their sexuality should be a wakeup call. It’s time for brands and media platforms, both streaming and linear, to step up and take a stand against outdated tropes. If the traditional media in particular doesn’t play its part in normalising LGBTQ+ representation and narratives, it risks alienating audiences. That’s particularly the case for men aged 18-24. A recent survey by UM and YouGov found that one in two identify as something other than ‘completely heterosexual’.

 

The queer community doesn’t need to see more one-time, purpose-led campaigns with the feelgood factor.

Michael Brown

Diversity should no longer be ‘ground-breaking’

Queer spaces and culture will always have an important significance for the community, serving as connection points for people to come together. However, it would feel a backwards step for LGBTQ+ audiences to have to keep to these ‘safe’ spaces. After all, why be out if you can’t be proud about it?  

The BBC aired the first primetime gay kiss on Eastenders back in 1989. It was met with fury by the tabloids, one calling for the Beeb to scrap EastEnders. Thirty-two years on CBBC series The Next Step received just over 100 complaints for the first same-sex kiss to be shown on children’s TV. We’ve come a long way!  

While Mary Whitehouse may be a distant memory, we can’t forget that The Next Step and Strictly’s welcoming of the first same sex couple were only deemed newsworthy because they sit beyond the ‘norm’. But progress continues. We’ve seen the BBC commission Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, one of their most successful entertainment properties, and after 14 years Graham Norton continues to host the UK’s most watched talk show. 

There’s much to celebrate in adland too, which has become much more sensitive to LGBTQ+ representations in recent years. A Cadbury’s Creme Egg ad featured a gay kiss and Doritos’ depiction of a closeted son and his father resonated with plenty of viewers. Starbucks has also celebrated the trans community with its #whatsyourname campaign.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, each has generated a wave of homophobic backlash online. However, we should console ourselves with the fact that the mainstream success of LGBTQ+ focused media demonstrates these views come from a minority itself, albeit a vocal one. If anything, these outbursts should only remind us why brands shouldn’t shy away from diversity.

While it’s deeply heartening to see influential brands and platforms embedding positive LGBTQ+ representations into their output, now’s the time to go one step further. The queer community doesn’t need to see more one-time, purpose-led campaigns with the feelgood factor. In particular, it’s all too obvious when a brand jumps on the Pride bandwagon once a year. 

35%
of queer men are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that challenges stereotypes
42%
of gay men want to see positive messaging in the media that it’s OK to seek mental health support
Over a quarter
of queer men in are offended by commonly recurring tropes

Cutting out one-dimensional tropes

Here’s an eye-opening statistic: 62 of the, just, 360 LGBTQ+ characters that made it into US TV screens last year featured in shows made by the same four directors, most notably Ryan Murphy, a prolific advocate of diverse casting. I’d much rather we’d see LGBTQ+ characters as part of the fabric, just another background detail, and not just on TV, across every channel and format. 

It’s early days but we’re beginning to see the signs. Twenty-somethings took the lead in intersectional storytelling in 2020. I May Destroy You homed in on the realities of online hook-up culture, while the hugely popular Schitt’s Creek revealed leading character David Rose’s pansexuality in an off-the-cuff scene. Each was a reflection of lived LGBTQ+ experiences that helped drive wider narratives, but without it having to be the primary focus. 

The reality is there’s never going to be a single storyline that resonates with every audience. Weaving in intersectional LGBTQ+ storylines as just another strand and without having to attach them to purpose will go a long way to making diversity the norm across the media.

Our research found that a third (35%) of queer men are more likely to make a purchase from a brand that challenges stereotypes. Over a quarter of queer men in our research were offended by commonly recurring tropes such as being camp (33%), being bitchy (29%) and being effeminate (25%), so the big question is, why do ads and other media persist in falling back on these cliches? Those that hold up a mirror to the true diversity found across the LGBTQ+ community will undoubtedly drive higher engagement.

Breaking down stereotypes and removing stigma can change behaviours too; It’s A Sin has driven a record number of orders for HIV tests. But an epidemic we face now is the mental health struggle and loneliness. The numbers of LGBTQ+ people accessing mental health services over the course of the pandemic have surged, but many suffer in silence; 42% of gay men want to see positive messaging in the media that it’s OK to seek help.  

The sheer breadth of voices and identities across the LGBTQ+ community make it challenging to bring each to life authentically through culture. But the critical and commercial success of the limited number of shows that try to suggest it is worth striving for. However, with a dearth of positive LGBTQ+ representation in the mainstream media, audiences are looking elsewhere for more diverse portrayals. This has created an environment in which queer creators such as Sir Carter, who currently has 3.9 million followers on TikTok, can thrive.

As such, many brands and the traditional media are now playing catch-up. The next step is to include LGBTQ+ people of every shape, size and hue in roles that go beyond the bitchy queen or closet case. We need to remind the world that our sexuality doesn’t limit us, it’s just there. And that’s the end game: we’re just there, much like everybody else. Who we love doesn’t have to be a plot point. 

The great strides that have been made when it comes to LGBTQ+ equality in the UK is encouraging. However, toxic tropes continue to perpetuate prejudice against sections of the community. 

Content creators should use their power and influence to help everyone. But this is most pressing for the transgender community, for whom hate crimes have quadrupled over the last five years. Brave brands like Starbucks and series such as Euphoria, The Politician and Pose are inspiring a shift in attitudes, but we’ll need many more if we are to beat the homophobia and transphobia that still festers in our society. 

Guest Author

Michael Brown, UM

Partner of Insight & Cross-Culture,

About

Michael helps UM’s clients understand their audiences and marketplaces by leading the agency’s consumer insight department. After five years at UM, Michael has recently taken on the additional responsibility of leading the agency’s Better World vision, which is their strategy for ensuring the agency makes a positive impact on the world we operate in. Michael has a particular passion for using traditional research methods to give a platform to marginalised voices in society and for understanding the role and responsibility of ads in creating and tackling stereotypes. Michael is founder and chair of #MRSpride, the market research sector’s LGBTQ+ network.

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