We’re here, we’re queer, get... better at representing us already

John Osborne lays bare the importance of queer representation in advertising, on screen and in-agency, and the pioneering ads including LGBTQ+ lives in an authentic, empowering way.

7 April 2021


Representation isn’t just a boardroom buzzword, or a cracking Scrabble letter score – it’s a big deal for people trying to see themselves acknowledged, validated and respected in an arena they look up to. Whether you’re female, POC, LGBTQ+, working class, differently abled, or any other kind of ‘other’, it can be hard to be something you can’t see. Which isn’t about a lack of imagination or pioneering spirit, rather a fear that people like you aren’t welcome. Even if you’re told otherwise. Actions speaking louder than words, and all that.

In advertising, I’ve found queer representation to be a mixed bag. Both on screen and behind the scenes.

The tricky thing with trying to see LGBTQ+ role models in the industry is that we’re an invisible minority. Unless there’s a rainbow flag next to someone’s profile pic on LinkedIn, you’re likely none the wiser. And given queer people tend to be well-trained in keeping their personal life personal for fear of judgement, there isn’t much soapboxing going on either.

And, frankly, you have to look beyond your agency and online, because it’s incredibly rare to see LGBTQ+ management IRL. And if you do luck out and spot the elusive boardroom queer, they’re probably of the white, cis, male variety. And that’s still a fair few ticks to one cross, conventionally speaking.

It begs the question of what happens to create this state of affairs? Is there a rainbow ceiling that prevents most LGBTQ+ people from ascending to be too client-facing? (Only a few years back I experienced the classic “The client’s just traditional” excuse for homophobic comments.) Or is it that my queer peers and I are relatively recent invitees to the inclusivity party, and the night’s still young?

Publicis Poke: Renault Clio, 30 Years in the Making

In fact, I suspect, there are many thriving LGBTQ+ people out there in adland who aren’t being seen, which is why I’m working with Outvertising to champion them as beacons of hope for those looking to see themselves represented out there. So, stay tuned for #QueerAdFolk launching soon.

But what about LGBTQ+ representation in the ads themselves? Well, to begin with, we’ve mostly only had LG representation. Typically, a same-sex couple featured in a sequence of opposite-sex couples. Occasionally, the medicine of queer representation isn’t made easier to swallow with a spoonful of straight sugar, and the gay couple get to star. The Renault Clio epic from Publicis•Poke springs to mind, which focuses on a lesbian love story throughout the decades (possibly with one of the leads as bisexual, depending on your interpretation). Then there’s Creature’s recent Beagle Street rhyming spot with more incidentally-lesbian homeowners, Mel and Mandy. (Bonus points for the couple both being QPOC).

When it comes to transgender and non-binary representation in advertising, you might see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it vignette of someone in a fashion film about “being yourself”, but almost never in an ad that isn’t centred on LGBTQ+ issues.

“Queer people aren’t holiday novelties. They exist 365 days a year and deserve to be represented beyond the month when they’re given a free pass.”

John Osborne

Creature: Beagle Street, Insurance for Life

The celebrated Starbucks What's Your Name campaign by Iris in collaboration with Mermaids is worth mentioning, but I’d categorise it as incentivised representation, due to it being created for the Channel 4 Diversity competition, rather than organic. Grey Canada’s Gillette ad featuring a trans son being taught to shave by his father is the only example I can think of that’s the latter.

Now, you might be thinking “No, I’ve definitely seen loads of LGBTQ people in ads!”, but I’d wager almost every single example was something for Pride. And most likely smothered in a rainbow. Probably on a bag of crisps. And while that’s absolutely fine, queer people aren’t holiday novelties. They exist 365 days a year and deserve to be represented beyond the month when they’re given a free pass.

And further to that point, they shouldn’t be relegated to campaigns focusing on their struggles, either. Which I say in full acknowledgment that I’ve used my platform to create campaigns like The Flag We Shouldn’t Be Proud Of exploring LGBTQ+ youth suicide, and Locked Down & Out raising awareness of the rising LGBTQ+ abuse since Covid-19 struck.

To pardon my hypocrisy slightly, I would say that at least the people behind those queer campaigns were queer themselves. (Very much not the usual case, dear reader.) But, still, I take the note too. I want – and need – to be conscious of better representing queer people and queer culture in everyday ways.

Because it’s incredibly important to represent LGBTQ+ people positively on screen, so, should they wish to join the industry, they see themselves represented in power, making decisions in the boardrooms. Not just to tick the boxes of inclusion which have long remained empty, but to promote self-worth and empowerment to a minority who – all too often – have to actively unlearn the inferiority and ‘otherness’ society has projected on them.

So, to that end, here’s to more people seeing and believing they can be anything. ‘Other’ or otherwise.

The Gate: LGBT Foundation, Locked Down and Out


The Gate: The Flag We Shouldn't Be Proud Of (Copyright © Gay Times, 2020)

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Publicis Poke: Renault Clio, 30 Years in the Making (Copyright © Renault, 2020)

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About the Author

John Osborne

John is a senior creative at ad agency Creature, currently based on a kitchen table in London.

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