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How to Accurately Represent the LGBTQ Community in Advertising

As part of StackAdapt’s ongoing #HackDiversity initiative, we sat down with Ben Winn of Venture Out to discuss LGBTQ representation in advertising: how the industry is doing and how it can do better.

Q: Let’s start with a quick intro

BW: My name is Ben Winn, I manage Customer Success at SeamlessMD which is a healthtech company based here in Toronto and I also manage Marketing and Communications for the Venture Out Conference.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Venture Out Conference

BW: The Venture Out Conference is Canada’s first ever LGBTQ focused event for folks in tech and entrepreneurship. We connect primarily LGBTQ students and recent graduates, people looking for new jobs and opportunities with people in the industry, people who are in the startup field in different companies. It all came out of the fact that we would go to events, we would see different ads, we would see different talks being given and we wouldn’t see anyone that represented us.

It really strikes a chord when you see a CEO, CTO, CFO, someone who is at that level who just happens to be LGBTQ. And so often, it’s not brought into the light. So the whole idea of Venture Out was to bring this other subset of the community to light to show people that founders come in all different shapes and sizes. We wanted to open that dialogue and get everyone in the same room talking about it, highlighting it and showing different angles of the LGBTQ community.

Q: I guess it’s very important to have that sense of community. You want to bring people together, that’s one of the mandates of Venture Out, correct?

BW: It’s all about making connections, that’s our primary function. I want to meet people and go ‘Oh my God, I want to be you in 10 or 20 years.’ And I know people who have had that experience through Venture Out, including Jeanette Stock, who is one of the co-founders. She gets so many intros, she’s met so many people who are these badass queer people in business, and now they’re role models or mentors.

Q: Let’s say a brand wants to market to niche, smaller clients. How can they make sure they’re targeting them correctly?

BW: Demographic data is only skin deep. To really get to people’s underlying emotions and motivations, and the real reasons behind the black box of the purchasing, you have to go deeper than what’s on the surface.

I think the thing they need to look for is the common ground among their demographics. If your product is something that you know is used by people in a certain region or age or something like that, that’s great and that’s useful. You shouldn’t ignore your demographic data. But you have to do a little more work than that.

Use the demographic data to guide your search but then, like I said, you have to look into other products and services these people are buying. What events are they interested in going to? Who are they watching on YouTube? Who are they following on Instagram? And why? Just because they watch makeup tutorials doesn’t mean they necessarily want to be a makeup artist. It could be that they’re really interested in the person’s messaging, what they talk about throughout.

You really have to paint a deeper picture, talk to people. I really believe in focus groups. Maybe not in the old-fashioned official sense but in reaching out to your demographic or people you think are going to be interested and get their feedback and get it early on before you blast stuff out to everyone and put $100K+ into some budget. People skip steps and people are afraid to question. Especially with bigger companies. It’s hard. There are so many layers of bureaucracy, there’s chain of command.

Q: Do you think LGBTQ people are well represented in mass media and in advertising that we see day to day?

BW: I think a lot of companies are trying which is good to see. Compared to 10 years ago, let alone 20 years ago, it’s a world of difference and I find that extremely encouraging. There have been some really good ads in the past couple years where they have just made it normal.

For some, there just happens to be two moms, two dads, and they’re all watching a movie around the TV. Or, you know, it’s for a home phone and they’re cuddling on the couch, and it’s not brought to the central focus. Then there’s something like the Ikea campaign ‘All Homes Are Created Equal’ which is a great campaign and a really great representation.


You have some more subtle ones. I fly a lot for work, and Air Canada, their safety video always makes me laugh. You’ve got the uppity white woman in first class, the Middle Eastern mother and daughter, you’ve got the gay-ish couple, you’ve got these eight people (there are only 8 people on the plane for some reason) but the gay guys, I always find it funny because, to me, I’m like, that’s a gay couple.

They’re well dressed, they just happen to have wedding rings, there’s no romance or intimacy so someone who’s straight might see it and say ‘oh, those are just two businessmen going on a trip.’ To me, I see it and think ‘oh, those are two gay guys who are travelling together.’ So we can each take from it what we will but I really like that.

It’s a good representation of real life. We are an invisible minority. You can’t walk up and down the street, even if you think you have really good ‘gaydar’ and know [who is LGBTQ] it just doesn’t work like that. You cannot tell one way or another. So, when you have people in ads that are overt and obvious and it’s like ‘we’re here, we’re gay’ that’s missing the point. I really appreciate the ads that are much more subtle.

Q: If you represent a gay man in short-shorts or an androgynous woman as a lesbian, is that slightly offensive?

BW: Everyone has a different view on what’s offensive. I don’t get offended, I get annoyed. You can do better, for one thing. You can try a little harder. Because it’s so easy to throw up a stereotype and let that speak for itself.

But it’s also very damaging because the more stereotypes are perpetuated, even subtly in ads, in other types of videos, tv shows, whatever, the more damage you’re doing and the more you’re reinforcing people that are on the fringe of this community. I’m in the middle of it so I really don’t care, I’m comfortable with it. Everyone I know knows that I’m out, my parents know. It doesn’t matter to me.

But if I were twelve, living in rural Ontario or a southern state that wasn’t super accepting, and all these ads and videos and everything kept reinforcing the same stereotypes, but I didn’t identify with those stereotypes, I would be horrified. Even here in Toronto, I had issues coming out because I didn’t know that I could be out and still just be ‘normal’. I thought I’d have to like, pick up the lisp and go to American Apparel and get my uniform. That’s pretty much what I thought growing up as a kid because I didn’t know any better.

If all you see is the same representation of the community in the same way it just gets hammered into you. And unless you’re going out to diversity events, you don’t know that there’s a whole other side to the community that’s actually the majority that wouldn’t be consistent with what you’re being shown on TV. So that’s how it’s damaging and that’s why it’s so great when you see either subtle or not so subtle representation but in a way that’s professional and normal and the same way you’d represent a man and a woman.

Q: Everyone is trying to build loyal customers who stick to their brand for life, how can they create that longevity for niche communities like LGBTQ, immigrants, etc.?

BW: Get deeper into your niche. Take Venture Out, for example. Ten years ago we would have been grouped in with Start Proud (Out on Bay Street) which was for any LGBTQ in the business community across Canada but as we’ve gone on and markets become more competitive and people grow and people get more involved you have to get more individualized and focused on your niche and maximize your vertical growth. So while we are still a part of Start Proud, we have been able to develop our own niche. There’s a market for that now.

Q: Today the goal of advertising is an individualized experience. How far away are we from advertising to you as a person instead of you as part of a general demographic?

BW: The advertising industry is a slow one. It’s still fighting a lot of bureaucracy. It has somehow found a way to bind the bureaucracy and speed of a bank with the creativity of a startup. We need to fight that slow pace of technological adoption.

In terms of representation, a strategy that I’ve seen work really well is to base everyone in your ads off of real people. Think about the gay guy you happen to know or the gay woman who works in your office and make her the character. How would she respond? What would she say? What would her reaction be? How would she dress? If you base your ad off of real people rather than what you think of this community at large, you’re almost guaranteed to have a great ad because the characters are real, their responses are real.

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