Why ads featuring queer families shouldn't have to play it straight

Anna Brent
Anna Brent

Advertisers must understand that many people from the LGBTQ+ community do not aspire to the traditional notion of building a family.

In a recent article I talked about the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in advertising, noting that I hardly ever see same-sex-parent families like mine in campaigns. After the piece was published, a fellow member of the LGBTQ+ community raised the brilliant point that, yes, we need to see more same-sex families, but why should we focus only on a traditional family set-up that is essentially born from a mould that replicates a heteronormative structure?

It is in fact just as important to show queer life in its more unique form. Many LGBTQ+ folk do not aspire to the traditional notion of building a family. So, beyond giving same-sex-parents the starring role in ad campaigns, there are many more ways brands can improve inclusivity when it comes to queer representation.

The family is one of the most prominent and successful tropes in ad campaigns. It’s almost 40 years since the most iconic ad family, the Oxo family, hit TV screens, and brands and agencies continue to rely on the same domestic themes in order to resonate with audiences. It’s obvious why we do it. When a brand puts its product in a family setting, it leans into two valuable tools – familiarity and aspiration.

However, to get closer to the lived experience of many people in the queer community, perhaps it’s time to deconstruct our whole notion of what a family unit looks like. Queer culture celebrates the idea of “chosen family”. This is a group of people who have intentionally chosen to love and nurture each other, often a tight-knit group of friends that acts as a support system. 

Sadly, the origins of people needing this lie in unfair necessity, with individuals having been rejected by their families when they came out. But, a chosen family can, of course, become as valid and crucial as any other. 

The chosen family has entered mainstream TV culture in groundbreaking shows such as It’s a Sin and The L Word. The former set in during the 1980s Aids crisis, when countless queer people were rejected by their closest blood relatives through hideous shame and phobia. Even the outrageously joyous Queer Eye has its “Fab Five” hosts often referring to each other as family.

Society consistently views families through a heteronormative lens, generally reducing it to a predictable two adults and 2.4 kids. Following the passing of marriage equality legislation, it’s easy to assume that marriage and kids is what everyone aspires to. There are many in queer culture that want the right to choose marriage, but don’t want to get married or have kids or buy a house or subscribe to anything else that is deemed desirable for a “successful life”.

The book, Queer Intentions, by Amelia Abraham (which I would make recommended reading for anyone who is committed to inclusive representation), explores the conflicts that arise as we move towards societal equality and its associated aspirations. Abraham notes that most of the closures of gay clubs and bars peaked around 2014, the same year that same-sex marriage was legalised – highlighting the conflict the LBGT+ community has experienced as a result of the life choices we (thankfully) now have the right to make. 

If everyone is supposed to work towards the same type of life goals, do we all start to move in homogenised circles? And does this mean that we queers don’t protect some of our unique values and spaces? Are we at risk of eradicating some of the richness that was special to our community, culture and self expression if we only see LGBTQ+ people in the moulds we show straight people in?

Marketers are supposed to be the experts in creating aspirational stories and imagery, yet when it comes to depicting families, could we be operating under false assumptions about what everyone wants? Aside from the queer community, data shows that Gen Z views marriage as less of a priority than any generation before. By perpetuating the singular family myth, we ignore a significant slice of the population – and in a crowded market where everyone is fighting for people’s time and attention, that is something no brand can afford to do.

Of course, in order to make this kind of representation happen, we need to focus on making our industry more diverse and getting many more backgrounds and viewpoints into the key decision-making roles. Consulting more widely with the communities we want to connect with is also crucial, and this can be supported through organisations like Outvertising and the Diversity Standards Collective.

Not only do we desperately need to represent and connect with different communities, we should be creating new stories, sparking new conversations and igniting people’s imaginations. Families come in so many different and wonderful forms, let’s start honouring them.

Anna Brent is the executive producer and head of diversity, equity and inclusion at Across the Pond

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