I'm proud to say that I created the first print advertisement targeting the gay community for a non-prescription drug. It was 2003.
The ad was for my beloved client, Tylenol, which I had considered to be a conservative brand. But Tylenol took a chance on me and what we then called the “gay market.” Looking back, that's such an odd phrase.
We made news. The trade publications quickly labeled me as “openly gay.” While I certainly wasn’t hiding who I was, I hadn’t announced it over a microphone like Ellen had several years earlier.
That Tylenol ad was one of many turning points for the industry, as brands began to acknowledge that we even existed. Up until then, the only brands that really showed support were the vodkas, the cruises, and the HIV medications. That support came in the form of print ads in gay-targeted magazines, typically showing gay white men.
Narrow, for sure, but it was a start. A great personal start for me too, as I got more and more comfortable talking about my own family. Sure, I would proudly display pictures of my kids in my office, but never my “partner.” I think I broke out into a sweat the first time I displayed a photo of the two of us on my desk. Needless to say, everyone noticed.
I remember with great pride how so many brands started to jump on the bandwagon and embrace Pride Weekend. The first time I saw an IBM float at the parade I literally teared up. Floats from Kiehl’s, Google and Delta followed. Hotels, skin care, tech, package goods companies all participated in the parade.
Employee support groups fueled that momentum. It soon became important for companies to acknowledge gay employees and support them publicly. That was way before “Diversity & Inclusion” became a corporate mandate.
With these early pioneering success stories, we started to see brands get more sophisticated in their approach to the “market.” Digital marketing and certainly social media made it easier to connect with people and become a more organic part of the community. The entire community. Not just gay men. Not just white gay men. Subaru proved its support of gay women over and over again, as another pioneer.
Brands eventually started to understand the diversity of the community, including the range of ethnicities and backgrounds that make up what was once called the “gay market.” We started to see less advertising talking to groups and more active involvement with specific groups. More public relations. More social marketing. More advocacy. More giving back.
Brands can both reflect and inspire our popular culture. So as brands embraced all that our community represents then our culture too embraced the entire range.
Honey Maid made history with “This is Wholesome” and its portrayal of two gay fathers. Breakthrough. You mean we can be parents? As a gay dad myself who struggled with acceptance before any of it was acceptable, I was thankful for what our industry was shaping in our culture. The fact that a major brand embraced us as parents was both shocking and inspiring. Even more inspiring was the brand’s response to the backlash. They held their ground with #Love.
Parenting! Tylenol (my alma mater) joined in with #HowWeFamily right along with JCPenney, and Campbell Soup. I cheered each brand.
As our collective culture evolves, we continue to evolve as an industry as well. And vice versa. Nothing makes me happier than to see brands not just feature members of our community in their marketing and communications efforts, but to feature them right along other parts of our world. We aren’t isolated anymore.
For me, it’s now more important to show us as a part of the united world, not a separate world. When I see LGBT+ people portrayed in a portfolio of consumers then I think it’s even more powerful. We aren’t separate and different; we are all part of a much larger community.
Enfamil just did it with its “The Most Important Person in the World,” ad that featured many kinds of consumers including those who identify as LGBT+. Harry’s showed inclusion with “Shave or Don’t Shave,” where it featured a transgender man right alongside lots of other men.
The brand Harry’s is a reflection, and a driver, of our latest evolution: gender fluidity. Brands are no longer just focusing on gay men and women, but instead on the entire LGBT+ spectrum, with transgender people at the forefront. These brothers and sisters need our support the most right now.
Sephora’s special skincare, cosmetics and haircare classes for transgender people are great examples. Recognizing and solving people’s special needs is an amazing step toward complete inclusion.
Brands are coming to the support of our entire community, not just the segments that are least risky, or most lucrative. I suppose it’s a natural evolution, but also a reflection of how we are embracing our people in the collective society.
Even more than in 2003 with that first Tylenol ad, I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it all—both on a personal and professional level.
Jim Joseph is global president of BCW.