Out of the closet: Easing the backlash against same-sex couples in advertising.
For a long time, companies hesitated to feature LGBTQ couples in their advertising as they feared upsetting a large segment of consumers.
To avoid such backlash, brands resorted to running what’s known as gay-vague advertising, which takes a more covert approach. These advertisements feature LGBTQ-related images that can be understood differently by distinct consumer segments.
Brands like Subaru, Volkswagen and Lucky Strike have all used this type of advertising. In 2001, Subaru capitalized on the popularity of the show “Xena, Warrior Princess” among lesbians. The car manufacturer ran an advertisement campaign featuring their vehicles with license plate expressions like “XENA LVR.”
Gay-vague advertisements have proven popular with the LGBTQ community members while avoiding backlash from straight consumers. However, as society has become more accepting, mainstream brands started featuring same-sex couples in their advertisements.
Big brands feature same-sex couples
And academic research in North America has shown that these advertisements are generally received negatively.
With the growing acceptance of same-sex relations, it’s important to reassess the reception of advertising featuring same-sex couples.
It’s also important to examine methods that can improve how these ads are regarded, enabling companies to continue to create inclusive advertising campaigns.
We address these issues in a research paper recently published in the Journal of Advertising. We show that straight North American consumers on average still express less favorable attitudes towards advertising featuring same-sex couples as compared to male-female couples. This is especially true for more conservative consumers.
Our research also puts forward strategies that may reduce the backlash against such advertising. Specifically, reminding consumers of their moral identity — their own moral traits and behaviors, like being helpful to others, to name just one example — improves consumers’ attitudes towards these advertisements, except for conservatives.
Preference for ‘traditional’ couples
Describing same-sex couples as having a strong Protestant work ethic especially appeals to conservative consumers. Protestant work ethic is the belief that hard work will lead to success, and that leisure time and hedonism are morally wrong. This belief is popular among conservatives.
We conducted three experimental studies with straight American and Canadian participants. In the first study, half the participants saw an advertisement with a male-female couple. The other half saw a similar advertisement with a same-sex couple.
We measured participants’ attitudes towards the advertisement, the brand and purchase intentions. We also measured participants’ “social dominance orientation.” This is a personality trait that measures people’s motivation to have their group achieve dominance over other social groups. It’s a characteristic highly associated with conservatism.
Participants who saw the advertisement with the same-sex couple reported less favorable attitudes towards the advertisement and the brand. These participants also indicated they were less likely to buy the product than participants who saw the advertisement with the male-female couple. These results were true for those who had average and high social dominance orientation.
In the second study, we investigated whether reminding consumers about their moral identity influenced their response to advertising with same-sex couples. Moral identity reminders had been previously shown to increase acceptance for those considered different than us.
In this study, only half of the participants were reminded of their moral identity. Results showed that reminding participants of their moral identity positively influenced their attitude towards the advertisement featuring same-sex couples.
This suggests that advertisements featuring same-sex couples while encouraging viewers to think about themselves in moral terms — kind and friendly, for example — are received more positively.
Nonetheless, regardless of moral identity reminders, those with a high social dominance orientation continued to report less favorable attitudes towards same-sex advertising.
In the third study, we investigated whether describing the couples in the advertisement as having a strong Protestant work ethic would be effective.
Individuals with strong beliefs in the Protestant work ethic tend to view sexual minorities as lacking the self-discipline to control sexual temptations. Thus, portraying same-sex couples in advertising as having a strong Protestant work ethic — people who are hard-working and successful — can counter this belief.
Results showed that when same-sex couples were described as having a strong Protestant work ethic, consumers had more positive attitudes about the advertisement. This was especially true for those with average and high social dominance orientation.
In brief, most North American consumers generally still prefer advertising with male-female couples compared to advertising with same-sex couples. Conservative consumers, those with a high social dominance orientation, have the strongest opposition to such advertisements.
However, slight changes in how brands frame the messages of advertisements featuring same-sex couples can significantly improve how straight consumers react to them.
Mohammed El Hazzouri is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Mount Royal University; Kelley Main is a Professor of Marketing at the University of Manitoba, and Lisa Sinclair is a Professor of Psychology at University of Winnipeg.