In the year following the George Floyd protests, much of corporate America stepped up its commitment to diversity and inclusion. Leading companies such as Walmart, Facebook, and Walgreens invested in minority-owned businesses, waded into divisive policy debates, and sought to boost Black stories. Just this spring, one of P&G’s own efforts launched “Widen the Screen,” with Queen Latifah’s Queen Latifah, as an initiative aimed to boost Black representation in film, TV, and advertising. 

Still, the marketing industry remains short on diversity in both messaging and production. The LGBTQ community in particular, despite its $3 trillion in global purchasing power, remains underrepresented — to companies’ detriment. One study found that less than 1% of British ads in 2016 included LGBTQ people, while another reported that 78% of LGBTQ people say they are eager to do business with companies that support and market to the community.

Behind the scenes, the status quo can also be discouraging. For example, as of 2014, Blacks accounted for only 5.8% of ad industry workers despite making up more than 13% of the overall US audience and consumer base. 

But efforts are underway to increase equity and inclusion across the board. P&G, for one, has founded and sponsored initiatives to make advertising more LGBTQ-inclusive and authentic, center LGBTQ stories in product lines with a special connection to the community, and increase representation behind the camera, encouraging brands and agencies to hire creators from all underrepresented backgrounds.

What’s holding some advertisers back

Research by P&G and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation suggests that one of the major obstacles to including LGBTQ people in advertising is that advertisers and agencies alike are afraid to get it wrong. Slapping LGBTQ slogans on products that otherwise have little to do with the community can summon cringe rather than solidarity —  for example, when Oreo added “Ask me my pronouns” to the design of its cookies. The mismatch is, or should have been, obvious, and the campaign drew eye rolls.

The data shows that advertisers are wary of similar pitfalls. Eighty-one percent of advertisers and 41% of agencies said they believe “an inauthentic execution of LGBTQ people and scenarios would lead to a larger backlash than not featuring them in ads at all.” Similar numbers said it is “difficult” to feature the community due to its own diversity and nuances, a common concern, but one that resources exist to alleviate.

The Visibility Project aims to change this dynamic by providing advertisers the resources they need to tactfully reach out to the LGBTQ community. The partnership between P&G and GLAAD includes access to GLAAD research, as well as connecting advertisers with subject matter experts for research, ad development, and corporate culture management, with the goal of producing authentic representations of LGBTQ people and culture. 

The Visibility Project emphasizes that better representing LGBTQ culture is a “business imperative.” The project notes a 20% increase in people identifying as LGBTQ, a trend that is particularly dramatic among the young adults who will dominate consumer spending in the years to come. One in six Gen-Zers identifies as LGBTQ.

Finding relatability in inclusive messaging 

When Pantene wanted to reach LGBTQ audiences, it sought to avoid pandering or hitting the wrong note. So, first, the brand team considered what connection its products might have to the community, landing on the insight that hair means to LGBTQ consumers what it means to all of their customers, if perhaps in a more nuanced way: it’s how people, generally, present themselves to the world. 

Many LGBTQ people change their hair after they come out and see their hairstyle as a means of expressing their identity. As a result, designing Pantene products and marketing campaigns to connect with LGBTQ consumers was a natural fit. The company sought to capitalize on what P&G Beauty CEO Alex Keith called the “undeniable link between hair and identity.”

The result was its “Family is BeautifuLGBTQ” campaign, a series of videos posted to the brand’s Instagram page that features adoptive queer families. In the videos, families discuss how they develop their individual hair styles while supporting one another. In one video, two mothers discuss how they helped their adopted black daughter fashion box braids for the first time. “It makes me really proud that they step into the world feeling like themselves,” one of the mothers says.

Similarly, the global “Hair Has No Gender” video series showcased trans and gender nonbinary people who took new family portraits with hair styles and other changes that better reflected who they are. The YouTube series showed trans and nonbinary adults connecting with their parents while presenting themselves as the gender they feel most reflects their identity. 

Pantene’s campaigns increased household penetration among LGBTQ households by 120% year over year, Keith said.

Driving change via staffing change

Messaging is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to marketing inclusion. The marketing supply chain also needs better diversity. P&G is a founding sponsor of one such effort, Free the Work, a platform that connects up-and-coming as well as professional creators from underrepresented groups with one another and businesses that need their voices. Businesses can use Free the Work’s dashboard to track their progress toward diversity goals in addition to finding creators who will empower them to speak authentically to the audiences they need to reach.

Director Alma Har’el founded Free the Work’s predecessor, Free the Bid, in 2016 to remedy the issues she experienced in the advertising industry. The organization pushed brands and agencies to include at least one woman among the three directors considered for every commercial job. FCB Chicago reported that taking on Free the Bid’s pledge increased the percentage of women directing its commercials from 10 to 30%.

In June, weeks after the George Floyd racial justice protests began, the organization revealed research that showed only 3% to 4% of directors at US and UK production studios were black. The initiative leveraged the data to force the industry to reckon with just how much progress remains to be made on diverse racial representation. 

Marketing campaigns reflect the marketers who make them. Free the Work’s efforts show that agencies and advertisers are in a strong position to influence the industry, the media it produces, and the culture it shapes by ensuring their own workforces are diverse and representative.