Major brands are now increasingly partnering with transgender actors and influencers in their ad campaigns, with massive support from the LGBTQ community and its allies. Brands like Bud Light and Nike, however, have come under fire for featuring trans influencers like Dylan Mulvaney in the face of growing anti-trans hate and legislation.
Despite often being the targets of criticism from online trolls and conservative public figures, advertising shows no sign of slowing down in trans representation and continues to symbolize allyship.
“Including our community in marketing is nothing new, but what is new is the extreme right-wing politicization of a company’s creative and business decisions,” Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the NGO Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said in a statement to TIME. “Companies will not end the standard business practice of including diverse people in ads and marketing because a small number of loud, fringe of anti-LGBTQ activists make noise on social media.”
Transgender representation in advertising has come a long way over the decades since subtle, queer-coded messaging first began popping up 40 years ago and when marketers described it as “our little secret” in the 1990s. Estimates show that the global LGBTQ community has at least $3.7 trillion in purchasing power and data indicates that compared to generic ads, queer-inclusive ads can help consumers remember brands better, inspire higher-priced purchases and foster a more progressive company image.
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“Brands know that LGBTQ inclusion is good for business. It reaches our community and also reaches the growing number of consumers who want to see their LGBTQ friends and family members in ads and campaigns,” Ellis said.
Increasing representation and hate
National brands have increasingly featured trans inclusion in ads over the last several years, but it still isn’t the norm. Companies like Pantene, Gillette, Citi, and Adidas have made headlines for hiring trans actors and pledging their support. However, as anti-trans discrimination persists and transgender people continue to be targeted in America’s political culture wars, progressive companies and trans brand representatives face conservative condemnation.
Just last week, Mulvaney was slammed with online hate after sharing sponsored Instagram posts promoting her brand deals with Bud Light and Nike. In retaliation, Mulvaney’s posts were flooded with aggressive comments and threats to boycott the companies. Countless videos appeared online throwing Bud Light beer into the trash and pouring it down the drain. Several former Olympic athletes, including Caitlyn Jenner, criticized the sponsorships and misgendered Mulvaney. Following the comments, Nike spoke on one of its Instagram posts, reminding people to be “kind,” “inclusive,” and encouraging. “Hate speech, bullying, or other behaviors that are not in the spirit of a diverse and inclusive community will be deleted,” Nike wrote.
In a statement, Anheuser-Busch, the brewing company that produces Bud Light, said it “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics,” Buzzfeed News reported Tuesday.
Mulvaney, who has more than 10 million TikTok followers, has been a frequent target of anti-trans conservatives for posting content about her transition journey, as well as solely for being a transgender woman. Mulvaney has been attacked online by famous figures like Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn and singer Kid Rock.
“You have people who are sort of divided over what role do brands truly play in these highly, politically charged and, divisive social issues,” Deb Gabor, CEO of branding agency Sol Marketing, previously told TIME.
In early March, Twitter flooded with hundreds of calls to boycott Hershey after a trans woman appeared on the chocolate bar’s wrappers for its International Women’s Day campaign in Canada. Hershey’s responded in a statement saying the company values “togetherness” and recognizes “the strength created by diversity.”
“As younger consumers come of age, these older legacy brands try to get closer to and form relationships with younger consumers,” Gabor said.
A smart business decision
A 2022 study by GLAAD found that 53% of Americans expect business leaders to be at the forefront of conversations and policy debates on LGBTQ rights and that when a brand demonstrates a commitment to advocating for those rights, people are twice as likely to buy from it.
For the queer community, inclusion in advertising is also about economic equality and finally playing a bigger role in the system that has consistently limited minorities’ financial growth.
GLAAD’s 2022 polling showed that 75% of respondents were comfortable seeing LGBTQ people in ads. For many it was more than just feeling “comfortable,” but a sense of support and a reflection that companies recognize LGBTQ people and value all kinds of diversity.
Queer-rights activists have long understood that transgender and nonbinary people, along with people of color, consistently suffer the most discrimination within the queer community. Brands are part of the effort to promote cultural acceptance of queer identity.
“When brands authentically portray LGBTQ people it reflects the world around us and improves the brand’s reputation among all consumers, especially younger consumers,” Ellis said.
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