Major American brands have concluded that depictions of gay and lesbian couples in their advertising can help them sell cereal, cars, and other products to the broad majority of American consumers, according to top marketing and advertising officials and market research conducted exclusively for BuzzFeed.
LGBT families, for decades confined to advertising aimed specifically at gay and lesbian consumers, have in the last three months appeared in an array of multimillion-dollar television advertising campaigns. The goal, marketers say, is depicting what consumers see as an authentic America — which is to say, a society where, as the narrator intones in the ad for a new Chevrolet family SUV, "what it means to be a family hasn't changed, what a family looks like has."
Chevy's ad, "The New Us," features both gay and lesbian parents among other diverse families. It ran prominently during NBC's primetime coverage of the opening ceremonies at this year's Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, offering a rebuke to Russian anti-LGBT policies that many of the Games' sponsors had resisted. Around the same time, March 10, the 90-year-old Honey Maid graham crackers brand launched its "This Is Wholesome" marketing campaign with a 30-second commercial that aired during TV shows like The View on ABC. The spot includes a collection of real-life diverse families, not actors, such as an interracial family and a same-sex couple, Jason and Tim, raising their two sons.
Gary Osifchin, senior marketing director at Honey Maid parent Mondelez International, said the campaign is a celebration of "wholesome connections" and illustrates the fact that "the family dynamic and composition has evolved."
"When we do research and talk to people and parents, it's about a breadth of parents and a breadth of families," he said. "So, specifically LGBT, specifically to interracial couples, single dads that are in our ad — all kinds of families we're portraying — we're really portraying in our communication what's actually a cross-section of today's family." Osifchin said the company looked at findings from the 2010 U.S. Census data in its research; for example, how biracial couples make up one in 12 married couples and that there are well over 100,000 same-sex couples raising children.
Those families this year broke through to the single most visible night of American advertising. Coca-Cola aired a one-minute Super Bowl commercial all about American diversity — including a same-sex couple and their daughter — with a multilingual rendition of "America the Beautiful." The couple would reappear in a longer version that also ran during the Opening Ceremonies broadcast — all while Coca-Cola faced criticism from LGBT activists for sponsoring the Sochi Olympics, given Russia's discriminatory law.
The new ads have a practical aim: Research conducted for BuzzFeed by global advertising giant JWT shows that women in their twenties and thirties — who do the bulk of family shopping — respond more favorably to ads featuring same-sex couples.
LGBT inclusion in marketing is part of a delicate dance that has long characterized American corporate behavior, in which business leaders have at times sought to align themselves with progressive public attitudes — as long as it's not a major threat to sales. And as social attitudes change, brands can jump on that bandwagon and amplify the shift.
"Suddenly, a brand can think about this without going, 'Wow, we know there's going to be a hit to our bottom line because so many people will be against this,'" said David Rogers, who teaches digital marketing at Columbia Business School and said he's seen a "surge" of LGBT-inclusive ads in recent months.
"I think they're finding, whether it's Chevrolet or Honey Maid or Cheerios, that by expressing or standing up for some values which they genuinely support and which not 100% of people support — something that shows a bit of a 'Hey, we're willing to put our opinions out here and put our values out in public' — that that is the way the brand can seem like more than just a label on packaging," Rogers said. "And it's something that will get people to start talking about something other than just what your graham crackers taste like."
These advertisers aren't flying blind. Big American retail brands do some of the world's most intensive market research, and while none of the brands or agencies using LGBT families in advertising would share specific research, the venerable global agency JWT (formerly known as J. Walter Thompson and now part of the WPP Group) agreed to conduct for BuzzFeed the kind of survey that advertisers typically rely on.
The survey asked 500 Americans of various ages, regions, political affiliations, and other demographics a series of questions related to their perceptions of gay and lesbian people in advertising and measured their reactions to examples of ads featuring same-sex couples. Among the firm's key findings from the survey, about 80% of respondents agreed that showing same-sex couples in advertising reflects the reality of today's society, and just over 6 in 10 view ads featuring same-sex couples as "appropriately inclusive."
"The survey results are very useful in revealing that the vast majority of Americans (80%) feel that showing LGBT characters in ads simply reflects the reality of society today," said Mark Truss, director of brand intelligence at JWT. "We also know that ads can often serve as a beacon for societal norms. These findings suggest that when diversity and acceptance are authentic and on-strategy for the brand, LGBT-inclusive ads will be met with a high degree of acceptance and benefit the advertiser."
Additionally, the data shows that many Americans (72%) view brands embracing the LGBT community as brave. "In the marketing world, I think this translates to leadership, putting a stake in the ground and standing up for communities that brands might feel could use a mainstream voice. These are all desirable attributes for a brand," Truss said.
The results of the survey also indicated that the degree of how prominently or overtly gay and lesbian people are featured in advertisements could affect how positively the ads are perceived. For example, an ad featuring a gay couple holding hands and dressed in tuxedos for a retailer's wedding registry received more negative responses and was seen as more controversial than a separate consumer product commercial that cleverly refers to two men as husband and husband. Consumers begin to question a brand's motives when same-sex couples are shown too overtly, so advertisers must be careful in how they execute inclusive ads, according to JWT.
Along the same lines, some respondents questioned the motives of brands when including gay and lesbian people in their campaigns. Half of respondents said brands are just doing it for publicity, and even 42% of respondents who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual questioned the motives of companies with inclusive ads. A segment of the population, or 40% overall, however, still believe that TV ads are no place for same-sex couples, according to the survey.
But this could change as more brands launch inclusive campaigns and more Americans are exposed to them, seeing as the data showed only 36% of Americans can recall seeing ads featuring gay and lesbian people.
"While this is due partly to selective media placement, it's also largely because featuring LGBT characters is a relatively new practice," Truss said. "While some brands will take a wait-and-see approach, I suspect that others — likely the market leaders — will see what's happening and begin to produce more LGBT-inclusive ads in the near future."
Brands are also intensely aware of the cultural echo (including news stories like this one) that an ad campaign generates. Marketers keep a close eye on how many YouTube views the commercials get, how many comments they receive, how many times a promotional hashtag is used, how many likes and shares a post gets on Facebook, and how much earned media these campaigns receive.
And these brands also have time and demographics on their sides: The consumers least comfortable with same-sex couples in advertising are older Americans; and they are men, who simply control a smaller share of retail spending.
"I think it's a really smart strategy. The kind of customers that you would lose over something like this, maybe it's best that they go somewhere else anyway," said Kathy O'Donnell, professor of marketing at San Francisco State University. "I started reading comments on Facebook and Twitter and overwhelmingly the comments were positive. And I read tweet after tweet where the person said, 'I haven't bought graham crackers in a long time, but I'm going to go out and buy Honey Maid graham crackers.' Mission accomplished."
One Million Moms, an anti-LGBT Christian conservative group, condemned the Honey Maid ad as "an attempt to normalize sin" and offended by the brand's use of the word "wholesome" to describe the family led by a same-sex couple. The group also decried J.C. Penney's choice — and ultimately unwavering support for — Ellen DeGeneres as the company's spokeswoman in 2012. But backlash such as a One Million Moms boycott is simply "manufactured" and poses no real risk to major brands, according to Bob Witeck, a communications consultant with decades of expertise in marketing insights on the LGBT community. "Companies have realized that that's more fiction than reality."
Just last week, Honey Maid released an additional video in the campaign — an unapologetic doubling down of its inclusive stance on what constitutes a wholesome family and a direct response to detractors who posted negative comments online. The video shows two artists constructing a 3D version of the word "love" out of printed negative comments, and like the initial videos, it has garnered millions of views on YouTube. Honey Maid, reiterating its view of wholesome families, claims it received far more positive feedback than negative, saying, "The best part was all the positive messages we received. Over 10 times as many."
Among the first companies to feature same-sex couples in its advertising are the Gap Inc., brands, including Gap and Banana Republic.
And just as the Olympics were winding down in February, clothing retailer Banana Republic launched a print campaign that also featured real-life couples, one of them interior designers Nate Berkus and his fiancé Jeremiah Brent. Banana Republic and its parent company, Gap Inc., have for years included gay and lesbian people in marketing campaigns, according to Catherine Sadler, chief marketing officer at Banana Republic, and Liz Nunan, a Gap Inc. spokesperson.
"At Banana Republic, we pride ourselves on designing for everyone — this belief has translated to our campaigns through the years," Sadler told BuzzFeed, saying the brand's approach to LGBT-inclusion reflects its birthplace, San Francisco. "Banana Republic ads have always embraced and featured diversity."
Activists, meanwhile, welcome the spread of images of gay and lesbian couples.
GLAAD's president and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis, said Chevrolet "nailed it" with its Olympics TV spots. "Recent LGBT-inclusive ads like these not only raise the bar for the advertising industry, but also reflect the growing support and acceptance of LGBT people," Ellis said. "It's about time my children were able to turn on the television and see families like their own represented in mainstream advertising."