Picture This!

Practical Tips on Powerful Multicultural Imagery in Advertising

Bob Witeck, CEO and co-founder of Witeck-Combs Communications. (Photo: Robert Dodge Photography)

What makes a strong visual in marketing and advertising campaigns today?

As the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, “I know it when I see it.” (Never mind that he was referring to pornography in a landmark 1964 obscenity case.)

For decades, regrettably, any same-sex imagery in an advertising campaign or in public spaces was customarily deemed pornographic or appeared just as offensive to mainstream (i.e. non-gay) audiences. At one time under antiquated U.S. postal laws, it was even illegal to send gay and lesbian publications through the mail.

With the freedom today to portray lesbians, gay men, or even bisexuals and transgender people truthfully and openly, are we really getting it right? The answer, of course, is yes and no. And the lessons we learn here are important for any advertising and public affairs campaign that aims to reach a variety of multicultural and often overlooked audiences and populations.

For more than 20 years I have worked alongside many marketers and media professionals, although I am not an advertising professional. Instead, I work strategically with advertising teams and consult on many campaigns designed to resonate with LGBT audiences. I also pay close attention to our own research and the outcomes of focus groups, after consumers evaluate imagery and messaging. I recognize more and more that diverse and multicultural lenses are reshaping the way consumers see themselves, as well as the sensitive and inclusive strategies that contemporary marketers must consider.

Here are just a few suggestions based on experience and best practices.

First, think and visualize authentically.

As same-sex couple and family imagery demand grows (e.g. wedding, travel and household markets especially), we will see less attention paid to the limited stock models available today and insist on more realistic and more compelling portrayals. [It’s not surprising with limited photo stock, that gay magazine readers sometimes find the same couples over and over staring back at them in different ads.]

Authenticity for many simply means seeing a richer and more inclusive spectrum of LGBT people. That true spectrum demands diversity in race, ethnicity and age for instance. It also may mean portraying women with shorter cropped hair and male models who may not be perfect for the pages of GQ or Details.

For judgmental consumers, and especially skeptical LGBT eyes, when prizing authenticity, they seem to be asking the basic question: “Does this image really reflect me or even someone I might know?”

Second, think memorable.

It’s safe to say that for many of us, our eyes glaze over when bombarded with thousands of ad impressions each day. Many campaigns rely on multiple impressions to sink in, for obvious reasons. However, the occasional effort with an eye-catching and hard-to-forget image can work wonders.

Think about how many people you’ve seen sipping beers at a bar or a party, looking into each other’s eyes as they figure out their 401(k) or just splashing in a pool as a couple. We have seen lesbian and gay couples in all of these marketing images, too, but many have a certain sameness and “look at me too” quality that instead makes them seem like background noise.

In exceptional campaigns, the palette takes a leap of originality. In one Las Vegas hospitality image, the hotel floor is strewn with two sets of male clothing, connected on the floor. The narrative does not jump in the bed with the owners of the apparel, although our minds usually do. Gay-welcoming Kimpton Hotels has an exceptionally attractive gay-targeted website populated not by models but instead by “real” or perhaps “card-carrying” LGBT people.

A few years ago, our client American Airlines also took a leap of faith by updating a vibrant “retro” travel poster that included images of a male couple and a female couple –

Retro ads by American Airlines were so popular they ended up in the company's museum gift store.

to remind us that gay people always have loved travel (even if we seemed invisible for decades). The representation became so popular that American Airlines sold posters of the ad in their museum gift store.

Avoiding clichés and tired or conventional settings is another reason why selecting the right photographer matters, and why it’s important to welcome original ideas that make us think differently even about familiar stories and ideas.

Several years ago, while working with our colleagues at New York’s award-winning Prime Access agency, we developed an innovative approach for our client, Volvo, that later was honored by the Advertising Research Foundation.

What made the campaign work best, I believe, was connecting with Volvo’s reputation and popularity with families. However, few LGBT initiatives had ever represented “our” families – or the theme “Whether Starting Your Family or Creating One as You Go.” As the trend towards parenting and growing families suggests, LGBT audiences want to see themselves here too.

Third, think outside the box.

By “the box,” I simply mean the usual gay print and digital channels. Make no mistake; I am an ardent advocate for and reader of community media. I admire their work also because they remain trusted, targeted and loyal to their audience and their mission. They also customarily offer excellent value for any campaign.

Nonetheless, gay people, like all other populations, are everywhere. Including our couples, our families and ourselves in more channels and in more representations will be the next frontier.

I recall a major historian’s observation about early television programming in the 1950s, when African-Americans were almost entirely off stage. It was rare for even a celebrated talent like Nat King Cole to be front and center on a television showcase, and nearly impossible to find a single black face in any television commercials. After all, advertisers then worried that if their popular beer was consumed by an African-American, would white beer drinkers still favor it? Would backlash change drinking tastes, and isolate their product from more customers? A half century ago, advertisers would never even consider the risk.

Multicultural considerations are changing, and marketers are responding. Almost 15 years ago, Ikea famously portrayed a gay male couple in one of their television spots, and it’s clear that bold experiment neither destroyed Ikea’s brand nor spawned backlash. Ikea simply decided that they have a wide range of shoppers, and why not represent more of them.

More recently, Orbitz also incorporated an HRC logo on a character’s golf shirt as a way of “winking” knowingly to their faithful gay customers. J. Crew took the additional step

A J. Crew ad recently featured a gay couple.

this year to enhance their online catalogue with a range of male “non-models,” including some of their own employees. Without fanfare or a drum roll, they also included a gay male couple.

Simply put, we don’t have to hide in plain sight. Nor in plain brown wrappers. For my two cents, the American people are as ready as we are hungry to see ourselves portrayed proudly, persuasively and truthfully in all walks of life and commerce.

Photographers, take your mark.

Bob Witeck is co-founder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications (www.witeckcombs.com), as well as author of Business Inside Out: Capturing Millions of Brand Loyal Gay Consumers (Kaplan, 2006).


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