Chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

There is an ad that goes something like this: a nervous couple reaches out to their parents/in-laws and announces their engagement/wedding/civil union/conscious coupling, uncertain of how the news will be taken.

A brief and palpably tense silence follows, and is promptly broken with cries of approval and joy, accompanied by uplifting music, for good measure.

As the curtain closes on this scene, Company X (Telstra in this case), which paid for the whole contrived production, steps in, with logo, slogan and jingle, to take a humble bow for enabling this tender moment to take place.

Why does such a mundane familial exchange pack enough pathos to warm hearts, jerk tears and seduce customers?

Well, there is a twist: The pair are both guys – “gasp”. That is how the advertiser, with all its marketing acumen, is able to wring a few drops of novel sentimentality out of an otherwise stale vignette.

Telstra's 2019 advertisement, which was titled “Time for a chat”, isn’t the only ad of its kind, nor was Telstra the first company to court the LGBTQI+ community.

LGBTQI+ representation in advertising is not all it is cracked up to be.

One thing that makes my skin crawl, when big corporations decide to fly the rainbow flag, is the amount of breathless praise they get for their “bravery” and “open-mindedness” and how much praise they give themselves.

Company websites gleefully detail their commitment to the LGBTQI+ cause, and include testimonials from employees, claiming to be so proud to work for them (reducing the notion of “pride” to near-meaninglessness).

Telstra’s version of the cheery write-up takes the form of an article titled, “One small step for LGBT, one giant leap for equality”. Most interesting and revealing is the measured praise Telstra receives from industry insiders, who applaud the “challenge” to traditional marketing wisdom for very different reasons. They know just what the LGBTQI+ community represents, in dollar terms.

By any estimate, the size of the LGBTQI+ community, in a population such as ours, constitutes a tidy and expanding market: the ongoing struggle for equality won not just social and political, but financial liberty for a community that had, for so long, been pushed back into society's shadowy margins.

The LGBTQI+ community represents what a 1995 American Demographics article described as a “gold mine” - one that was still considered “untapped” back then. Recent estimates in the United States put the collective buying power of the LGBTQI+ community at about US$1 trillion.

How morally courageous is it, therefore, to tap an untapped gold mine? Is it clever? Advisable? Lucrative? Yes, yes, double yes. But, is it really all that bold in 2020 in Australia – a country that voted Yes, by a resounding majority, to same-sex marriage, just three years ago?

The market these companies stand to lose by inaction is undeniably huge. The false gambit of LGBTQI+ representation in advertising, the “bravery” that earns “queer-friendly” companies reverent applause, only doubles their winnings, as they rake in moral capital on top of financial. They are even less deserving of the former than they are of the latter.

Additionally, trans individuals are virtually invisible in most corporate marketing efforts. Bisexuals, intersex and others don't even appear to exist. "LGBTIQ+" is, therefore, merely longhand for – in most companies' versions of it – G-with-a bit-of-L inclusivity.

The relative scarcity of lesbians in advertising has been attributed to their common association with anti-capitalist feminism and diminished buying-power, as compared with the “male, gay, dream consumer”.

As for TIQ+, the only progress in advertising, with respect to transgender and non-binary people, is that most companies (that once did) have stopped using trans people (almost always male-to-female) as punch lines in egregiously transphobic or intersexphobic attempts at humorous advertising. However, it appears that when companies are no longer allowed to use trans and intersex people as the butt of a joke, they don't use them at all.

The sad irony is that trans and intersex people are probably more in need of good representation in the mass media than any other group, for the very same reasons that cowardly marketeers won't go near them.

That brings me back to the nervous young couple in Telstra's “Time for a chat”.

Essential to the ad’s power is a telegraphed sense of discomfort and fear of rejection: the son's hesitation, the parents' portentous pause. These are contrived to make the viewer expect the parents to bristle and answer, "Well, we won't be coming to the wedding" or something like that. The ad coaxes the viewer into a kind of suspension of belief and, in this way, the compassionate parental acceptance that should be so natural becomes a twist ending.

The big emotional pay-off comes with mum and dad’s gushing approval on the other end of the line. Thus, what counts is not so much “being yourself”, but being accepted by a straight authority – be they parents, friends or complete strangers.

As enticing as the pink dollar may be, more important to ambitious advertisers is the well-meaning, and majority, population of straight allies, who enjoy affirming their own progressive values by supporting businesses that appear to support the LGBTQI+ community.

Hence, modern advertisers have a preference for the so-called “assimilationist” approach to representation. This approach sees gays and lesbians more and more heteronormalised, sanitised and adapted for general consumption: like the gay couple in Telstra's ad, doing “the honourable thing”.

Self-styled pro-LGBTQI+ cis-heterosexuals seem to prefer this brand of homosexuality (especially when it is wrapped up in white, middle-aged, male packaging), so this brand prevails, whether gay and lesbian individuals like it or not – or recognise themselves in it or not.

A survey conducted in Britain in 2019 found that 64% of adults believed LGBTQI+ representation was a good thing but 72% of the LGBTQI+ community believed their representation in ads to be tokenistic.

Proceeding by cold calculus (the marketer's guiding light) the choice between appealing to 72% of the LGBTQI+ community or 64% of the entire British population is, as they say, a no-brainer for heartless marketers and their corporate clients.

In summary, LGBTQI+ representation in advertising is not a challenge to mainstream values, but a product of them. It is a purely commercial decision driven by the prospect of an expanded and more loyal market share. Furthermore, it isn't concerned about advancing the LGBTQI+ cause and does not actually represent the LGBTQI+ community.

Companies peddling LGBTQI+ representation to mostly pro- LGBTQI+ consumers are not vehicles of change and are, at the very best, rear-vision mirrors, their LGBTQI+-inclusive imagery a reflection of equality that was hard-fought for and won decades before they were on the scene.

Companies vying to win over the LGBTQI+ community do not add value; they merely reap the rewards of a movement they contributed nothing to.

ANZ, for example, may pride itself as the major corporate sponsor of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras since 2007, but they were nowhere to be seen at its first incarnation some thirty years ago, when activists were rounded up in Darlinghurst and beaten by police.

Above all, it was LGBTQI+ rights activists, motivated by their will to be recognised and treated like humans, who made it safe for these companies to “come out” – not the other way around.