I'm a lesbian and, according to ads, I don't exist

Representation matters if we want our children to grow up in a world where they feel OK to be themselves.

I’m a lesbian. According to advertising, I don’t exist. Maybe that seems dramatic; there have been a few allusions to same sexness in ads over the years. But not much. And probably you’ll find more gay men depicted than gay women – I guess lesbians aren’t as friendly, as playful or as endearingly cuddly and camp. Even if marketers decide to represent lesbians, it tends to be a poor stereotype or an acceptably "straight" version of what it is to be a lesbian. We must be squeezed into the binary gender concept or face being ignored entirely.

Despite two spots featuring same-sex couples making the top 10 most-complained-about ads last year, people tend not to be shocked by lesbianism any more – not the way they used to be when I started in advertising 15 years ago. Still, I find I have to come out at least once a week to someone and the recipients of my perpetual outing can be taken aback if they didn’t spot it themselves until I mentioned "my wife"; most still think "gaydar" is a real thing and are disappointed that theirs failed them. That can be fun. Then they drop in that their cousin’s mate’s brother is gay, so we’re all cool.

Representation matters

I consider myself lucky to have been born when and where I was to the parents I have. I’m fortunate enough to have avoided the kinds of issues faced by what is vastly a minority, to have dodged obstacles related to my sexuality, to have not been abused or attacked or specifically discriminated against because I’m a lesbian – as far as I know. But still, as both a woman and a lesbian, most stories put out into the world are not for me. Film, TV, advertising – mostly none of these is not for me.

More and more, opinions towards female-produced stories about women’s lives, women’s perspectives and women’s experiences are shifting. More screen time for women. More lines for women. More respect for the women telling these stories, both behind and in front of the camera. But only just. The needle is only just beginning to move – helped along, of course, by movements such as #MeToo and Time's Up. However, last year, just 8% of working film directors were women – down from 11% the year before. And that's clearly illustrated already this year, with zero nominations for women in the best director category at both the Baftas and the Oscars.

Despite the lack of accolades for female storytellers, though, I see womanhood reflected more than ever in the content I watch. In advertising, this just makes good sense, since 51% of the population is female and most purchase decisions are made by or heavily influenced by women.

But what about lesbians – do I see myself reflected in ads as a lesbian? I know that I don’t; even the statistics tell me so – a study from Lloyds Banking Group revealed that lesbians are the least well-represented community in advertising.

Be the change

This year could be the change, since the Committee of Advertising Practice announced in December 2018 that it was to put in place a ban on "gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence". This certainly helps tackle gender imbalance and, in turn, I hope, the heteronormative leaning adopted across the industry.

Brands have such power to influence, to set the tone, to change the narrative. Should it be the duty of brands to reflect the different kinds of people who make up their audience? To contribute to meaningful and positive sociocultural change, to promote acceptance by simply featuring lesbians in some of their communications, to dispel tired and harmful stereotypes, to show the many ways we are all connected, are all the same, despite the differences that really don’t matter? Yes. That’s the answer.

Every time there is a lesbian or lesbian couple depicted in an ad campaign, it gets my attention. I always wonder what the motivation was for that narrative or casting decision. Did these creatives come up against a client, like I have in the past, who said "Well, I just don’t want our brand to be jumping on a bandwagon, to be trying too hard, to appear too worthy"? Did those creatives push harder than I did, convincing their client that putting lesbians at the heart of the idea improves the idea, that it’s no big deal, that it’s brave, contemporary, modern, normal – the right thing to do? Or maybe the client set the agenda: "Give me an idea that works for a lesbian character or couple, because we want to tell those stories, because we want to normalise the appearance of such lives in our ads, to reflect those people in our communications, to be proactively inclusive rather than quietly and apathetically so."

In the past year, I’ve seen lesbians portrayed in spots for Vauxhall, Maltesers and McCain. And it’s a thrill. Can you imagine a straight person WhatsApping a friend the link for an insurance ad saying: "Dude: there’s a straight guy in this ad… kissing his wife! Seriously. Straight. Wife. Kissing. Check it out." When will ads featuring lesbians stop being such a surprise?

I am white. Actually, very white – I burn even on overcast days in autumn. This means I have no idea what it’s like to be black, or brown, or beige (as my half-Spanish friend refers to herself). I also have no physical disabilities that I know of. This means I have no idea what it’s like to be disabled. I don’t know what it’s like to be on the breadline, to be religious, to be trans, to be a single parent. I know all these different people and circumstances exist, but not because I see them depicted in ads. Which is really a disservice, don’t you think?

The power of omission   

Discrimination comes in many forms, and omission from the stories that people and brands tell holds as much power as an outright attack. To be absent from brand communications is to be minimised, excluded, scrubbed out of regular public consciousness, of cultural discourse, of the every day. Young people grow up thinking the images bombarding them are the only version of normal there is. And so many of the images they see come from advertising, on billboards, on TV, on social media.

I’d like to see more lesbians portrayed in ads. As major roles, as minor background parts. I’d like this content not necessarily to be about being a lesbian, but rather about being a person who happens to be a lesbian – who needs insurance, or to change banks, or to go to McDonald's (sometimes, we all need to go to McDonald's). So that my daughter can see lesbians in the images around her and know that having a mummy and mama is just as normal as having a mum and a dad, or just a mum, or just a dad.

I speak here for an underrepresented minority that I belong to but, really, I’m speaking out for all minority groups – they together make up a single majority of people who, for the most part, are not recognised by storytellers or by the brands that put out much of the content we consume, whether by choice, unwittingly or subliminally.

Diversity isn’t a scary word, or a zeitgeist, or a political-correctness exercise. Diversity really just means "all people". All kinds of people. If we want to promote harmony, acceptance, tolerance, if we want our children to grow up in a world where they feel OK to be themselves, to talk about their issues openly, where men can be vulnerable and women can be strong, where race or religion or sexuality has no bearing on how you are treated, we need brands to take their responsibility seriously. The images they produce and the content they make have a profound impact on what we think about all kinds of people, and ourselves, and so they should authentically reflect the diverse world we live in.

Trak Ellis-Hill is executive creative director at Mofilm

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