What is your opinion on the current state of LGBTQ+ representation in the advertising industry?
Yumi: I think the advertising industry has done a better job than others in hiring LGBTQ+ employees, with mixed success in ensuring they feel welcome and included. We’ve got a long way to go in representing their communities in the work that we do.
Donesh: In many ways, representation of queer individuals is difficult because sexuality is not an outwardly identifying marker. Do we do a good job of representing people of color? No. So we do an equally poor job of representing queer people of color. One way where representation is decidedly different, however, is in the representation of trans people. We are failing them like the rest of society and we have a responsibility to do better.
Do you think LGBTQ+ marketing is seen as a trend or a real need for businesses?
Yumi: It’s hard for me to say whether it’s one or the other. The reality is that either suggestion may be pejorative because one is “fashion”-driven and the other is financially driven. Ultimately, in order for us to do work that is effective, it needs to be meaningful and have value for its audiences. Ensuring that we are respectful of and authentic to the audiences that we serve should be the driver behind LGBTQ+ marketing.
Donesh: They’re two different things. LGBTQ+ marketing is a trend. Equal treatment is a real need. I think marketing to queer people can be a need in certain cases but, more often than not, I think there is more power in brands not causing injury in the first place.
How can brands be more authentic in the way they engage the LGBTQ+ community?
Yumi: I think too many folks in our business assume we understand other people’s experiences, instead of asking people to share their experiences with us. So the first is to ask and then listen really hard, even if we think we totally get it. The real authentic engagements come from what these brands then internalize into their culture, and communicate in actions to the larger world.
Donesh: Start from a place of humility. Learn about intersectionality. Embrace that one queer story does not represent all queer stories. Give us platforms. Understand that queer people carry trauma. Treat us with respect.
Do brands risk damaging their perception in the eyes of the community if they don’t show support?
Yumi: I think they run a bigger risk if that support isn’t genuine. Ultimately, it’s less what brands advertise and more how they operate that is going to be the dealbreaker.
Donesh: I think brands need to do some real thinking before chasing a campaign. What’s the desired outcome? What kind of relationship with their customers do they desire? Is it transactional? Is there a lifetime bond? It means a lot that my employer wants to celebrate queer people. It means less that a grocery store does.
Outside of advertising/marketing where can brands look for inspiration on how to embrace the LGBTQ+ community?
Donesh: To embrace queer communities, start by embracing queer people. Harvey Milk, in his attempt to advance LGBTQ+ rights, encouraged supporters to make their sexualities known to the people in their lives because that intimate bond will be the most effective way to dismantle hate and build understanding. You don’t need to look far to find us. Look to queer communities and amplify the work they are doing and the stories they are telling. Local centers that support healthcare for people living with HIV. Organizations working to house those who have been outcast from their “families.”
Yumi: Look around you. Look at your families, your schools, your churches, your hospitals, your supermarkets, your nonprofits...at least in the US, the world is not so segregated that we’d have to look very far to be inspired by how LGBTQ+ people are a contributing part of virtually every community there is. But then, look under the hood. Speak to the nonprofits and advocacy organizations who care for people who have been outcast or disenfranchised for no reason other than their sexuality or gender identification. Speak to those people, and hear their stories.
Where is the line between inclusion and "rainbow-washing" for a communication agency running a LGBTQ+ campaign for one of its clients?
Donesh: Inclusion means just that—the inclusion of everyone. Brand campaigns for pride that somehow manage to feature heterosexual couples with children just barely scratch the surface of what is a very real problem of rainbow washing. Or, for that matter, brown-washing, woman-washing, or washing of any sort. Where are the queer employees running the program? The people of color sitting in the C suite? We all love good intentions. But brands that are unwilling to put their beliefs into practice will always run the risk of failing in their outreach attempts. It can’t be a campaign. It has to be principles.
Yumi: The line is less of a line than it is a big gaping hole. If the ads celebrate and project one thing, yet the company behind the brand behaves completely differently, the brand’s done more than rainbow-washed; it has deceived.
In addition, unlike other campaigns where I think it’s less important for the intended audiences to literally see themselves in an ad; I do believe it is important for us to feature more LGBTQ+ folks in the work that we do. Not to check a diversity box, but more to help shape culture and show future generations what is possible. Importantly, the inclusion of LGBTQ+ talent or scenarios needs to be natural and additive to the communication. If either comes across as left field, the likelihood of rainbow-washing is high.
As we reach the end of Pride Month, are there any brands that celebrated it well in your opinion?
Donesh: Yes. Besito, a woman/queer-operated cannabis company here in Los Angeles, has managed to really hit the mark by focusing on creative that looks great and puts queer people front and center while not making it a campaign that begins and ends. It has an authenticity to it that is largely reflective of the people who drove the work and their dedication to principles—not marketing goals.
Yumi: I have to jump on the IKEA fan-wagon. Yes, this year they too added a rainbow-colored product to the mix with 100% of the proceeds going to charity (in this case, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation). But unlike other brands that stopped there, they did so much more.
They flew the Pride flag at all their stores. And importantly, they’ve invested in real change starting from within. They joined queer advocacy groups and contributed to the UN Standards of Conduct for Business on Tackling Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. They’ve operationalized inclusivity into their business, and have been recognized as industry leaders in their LGBTQ+ employee benefits. They’ve simply been brave enough to stand up for their convictions, since being one of the first major brands to air a TV spot featuring a gay couple—25 years ago. That’s a celebration to have pride in.