Representation Matters: A view on trans people in advertising

Thought Leadership

As Pride Month draws to a close, our Global Head of Research & Insight Paul Greenwood takes a look at how brands can improve their representation of trans people in their advertising and the workplace.

Representation matters.

Over the years, representation around the LGBTQ+ community has gradually (and at times slowly) improved. It has not reached the point where gay and lesbian representation is par for the course but feels to have been making significant progress. This has been driven by a new generation that’s come of age – one defined by social justice activism and allyship.

Yet many allies of the LGBTQ+ community are unaware of the differences in the types of struggles and discrimination different members of the community face. Many often assume issues are the same whether you’re gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer – whatever your orientation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. One part of the community that has made very few gains and can often be the most misunderstood, discriminated against and under-represented is the trans community. I recently spoke to Dani St James, founder of the trans charity, Not a Phase to find out more.

Not a Phase was set up as a reaction to leaked government documents which endangered the protection of single space premises (bathrooms and changing rooms) and also the revoking of healthcare for over 18’s. Many would probably think that we live in a progressive and (socially) liberal society where we’re continually gaining better rights for marginalised communities. Yet the government is considering pulling back on trans rights, making the country less progressive.

At the same time we’re seeing more high-profile trans representation in advertising (albeit from a pretty low base –  only 0.3% of adverts feature transgender people). Starbucks’ #WhatsYourName campaign highlighted the importance of names and pronouns, depicting the coffee shops as a safe space for transgender customers. As Dani explains “consider how lucky you are to walk into a room and everybody knows who you are and what you represent without even having to say a word. That’s a privilege.”

Gillette similarly ran a campaign from a trans person’s perspective, with ads like these acknowledging the day to day dilemmas and decisions that transgender individuals face. But as Dani says “I hope we get to the point where we have non-binary and trans representation visible and it’s not a showcase.” Despite improvements, trans representation often occurs during Pride month, and this can be misinterpreted as tokenistic and disingenuous. 

Dani, herself, has modelled for the likes of Missguided and works as an ambassador for L’Oreal, one of the very few companies that has policies in place to specifically support the community through transitioning.

With an increase in representation comes increased visibility. Kate Dale, Head of Campaign Strategy, Sport England summed it up best when talking about representation and sensitive issues: “If you have created a space, and you’ve created a conversation, you have a responsibility to the people who come to that platform.

What else should brands and advertisers do to safe-guard the community as well as authentically portray different communities (so not opening the brand up to accusations of rainbow-washing and tokenism)? Here are the basics brands should look to do before working with trans people (and other under-represented communities).

  1. Engage the community throughout the process. From ideation to execution, ensure that voices from the community are heard and incorporated into the campaign
  2. The best way to ensure this happens is to hire and employ trans people. And the best way to attract talent is to have the policies in place to support the trans community.
  3. Talking to and representing the trans community is not just for Pride month. Ensure representation occurs throughout the year.
  4. There’s likely to be some backlash – be prepared to stand up and call out bad behaviour online. You’ll need community management and guidelines to regulate and monitor.
  5. Consider aftercare for any trans models, influencers and creators that appear in campaigns. There’s relatively few members of the trans community that appear in advertising so they’re likely to feel the heat if there’s negativity. Ensure they’re properly supported with robust aftercare.

From my chats with Dani, the one thing I took away was her analogy for better representation (of all under-represented groups). She said that all any community is asking for is a seat at the table. A table that is infinite and one that can have as many chairs around it as necessary – so that noone is losing a seat when someone else is asking for one. It’s about time more chairs were offered around.

Paul spoke to Dani St. James on Instagram Live, earlier this month. You can watch the full conversation below.

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If your brand is looking for consultancy when it comes to trans representation, you can contact Not A Phase here.