New Approaches to Portrayals of Homosexuality in Advertising


In this modern era of technology and media, advertising has become the backdrop of our everyday lives. With the continuing advancement of advertising and the capitalist market, more and more representation can be found in the mainstream brands that we know and love. Today’s social and political climate has evolved and begun to allow for more inclusivity of minority consumer groups, one of these groups being homosexual consumers.

In the past, studies have shown that explicit portrayals of homosexual individuals or themes in advertising were received negatively by mainstream audiences, as a majority of consumers partially define their self-identity as being heterosexual (Angelini & Bradley, 2010).

However, efforts have been and continue to be made by advertisers to connect with their gay and lesbian consumers. Researchers have often argued that this niche group is a so-called “dream market” which possesses immense buying power (Chasin, 2001; Sender, 2001). Studies have shown that LGBT consumers show more interest in brands that affiliate with gay-themed advertising (Jaffe, 1991; Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2005; Oakenfull et al., 2008). It is no surprise that brands are so eager to grab the attention of this particular audience. However, how can advertisers achieve a relationship with this target market while also preventing alienation of the majority?

Despite the liberalization and emergent cultural acceptance within our society, advertisers may still face some challenges when appealing to members of their heterosexual audiences. Based on extensive research done on this topic, some prominent determining factors for attitudes toward gay-themed advertising seem to be concepts of self-identity, gender roles, and tolerance of homosexuality. Regarding self-identity in particular, researchers have observed that there is less risk involved with gay-themed advertising when it involves familiar situations and non-explicit homosexual imagery (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017).

The ability of audience members to self-identify with the imagery in advertisements is an important factor in determining their attitude toward the ad (Angelini & Bradley, 2010). Explicit homosexual imagery, symbolism, or stereotypical portrayals are likely to affect this negatively, which can subsequently interfere with concepts of traditional gender roles, typically among heterosexual males (Um, 2014; Lough & Mumcu, 2017). With these factors in mind, there are ways to approach gay-themed advertising that resonate with the gay and lesbian community while also avoiding the alienation or disapproval of the heterosexual majority. Moreover, the apparent change in attitudes toward homosexuality over time is predicted to successively change the effects of homosexual advertising on consumers (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017).

Due to this apparent shift in views and attitudes toward homosexuality in society, advertisers now have more flexibility and freedom to include minority groups in their ads in order to target such groups as homosexuals without the severe criticism from mainstream heterosexual consumers that has been observed in the past. The implications this has for advertisers is that brands will profit off of homosexual and heterosexual consumers alike in this new age of marketing freedom. For mainstream consumers, they can expect to see increased representation of the gay community and more positively charged messages of homosexuals in advertising. Overall, with the cultural development of the mainstream market, the effects of homosexual imagery in advertising on consumers are becoming more positive.

Literature Review

Self-identity and social identity theory play important roles in consumer responses to imagery in advertising. Social identity theory explains how a person’s association with and membership in a social group allows them to enhance their group’s social standing at the expense of another (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). An individual’s ability to identify with a specific social group being portrayed in an advertisement can severely affect their level of approval toward the advertisement and the items within the ad. Research has shown that heterosexuals are not as positively responsive to gay or lesbian imagery featured in advertising (Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2004).

Given that the majority of mainstream consumers see themselves as members of the overall societal group of heterosexuals, viewing ads that contain explicit homosexual imagery will likely yield levels of negative reactions and disapproval among this audience (Angelini & Bradley, 2010). Including this type of imagery in mainstream advertising may be interpreted as alienation of mainstream heterosexual consumers, especially if it contains homosexual iconography (e.g., a pink triangle, a rainbow flag) (Angelini & Bradley, 2010), or it is not clearly connected to the product (Puntoni et al., 2011).

One approach to avoid this dilemma would be to merely imply homosexual messages in advertisements. Some research indicates that implicit gay and lesbian imagery is the best possible approach for avoiding negative responses from mainstream consumers. Mainstream consumers will only react to gay imagery if they are able to clearly identify it as such (Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2005). Therefore, utilizing imagery that is solely identifiable by gay and lesbian consumers is perhaps one way to target the minority while also avoiding alienation of the heterosexual majority. This strategy of using implicit references to homosexuality was first referred to as “gay-window advertising” (Bronski, 1984). This involves very vague indications of gay or lesbian characters, such as subtle gestures or language, that appeals to the LGBT audience but can be overlooked by heterosexual consumers (Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2005).

LGBT consumers are, in fact, more interested in and more likely to purchase brands that advertise directly to them (Smith & Malone, 2003). Additionally, a large percentage of readers of gay publications report that they are “very likely” to buy the mainstream products advertised there (Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2004). However, it is thought that advertisers who focus on strictly gay and lesbian publications may be missing their target audience (Angelini & Bradley, 2010). It has been found that mainstream publications such as Newsweek, Time, and People, are read by more than 90% of gay men and 82% of lesbians (Oakenfull & Greenlee, 2004). Also, in 2015, the global queer community’s purchasing power was estimated at $3.7 trillion, and $1 trillion in the U.S. alone (Auten & Schneider, 2018). Hence, why the switch to more portrayals of homosexuality in mainstream advertising may be a wise choice for advertisers.

Contrary to dated research, one recent study has indicated that attitudes toward homosexual imagery in advertisements were more positive, likely due to the fact that their experimental stimuli portrayed generally romantic situations that people can relate to (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017). Such findings signify that there is less risk involved in portrayals of homosexuals in advertising when relatable content and familiar situations are utilized (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017). Predictions made by several researchers suggest that emerging progressive feelings toward homosexuality in society are likely to change attitudes toward homosexuality in advertising (Fiorina et al. 2006). However, in order to provoke the best possible reactions from mainstream consumers and target markets, advertisers must continue to take into consideration the limitations that are presented in this field of research.

One such limitation to including homosexual imagery in advertising concerns gender roles. According to Um (2014), gender-role belief is cited as a factor in tolerance of homosexuality. The gender identity of the consumer is also a determining factor in the level of negative response toward an advertisement. Female heterosexual consumers are typically more tolerant of homosexuality than heterosexual males (Sjögren & Berisha, 2016), as heterosexual males generally hold more traditional views of gender roles (Um, 2014). According to Elliot and Elliot (2005), advertising portraying homosexual men was perceived by heterosexual men as being “too feminine”, “too overtly sexual”, or “gay.” The stereotypical image of gay men is typically thought to be feminine or flamboyant, so if they are portrayed this way in advertising, straight males who attend to traditional gender roles are likely to have more of an aversion to this. However, gender roles and societal expectations of men and women are starting to become more ambiguous. Consequently, this has carried over into other aspects of other societal beliefs, such as tolerance of homosexuality.

After the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States in 2014, LGBT-themed advertisements in the mainstream media were shown to be extremely effective and engaging among mainstream audiences (Muller, 2015). In the past few years, brands have started to push the boundaries with representation of minority groups, especially with those belonging to the LGBT community. This new trend of inclusion has proven to be beneficial for brands. Hester and Gibson (2007) found that homosexual imagery in advertisements elicits higher levels of approval and more positive attitudes toward a brand among consumers more tolerant of homosexuality.

A 2015 Wells Fargo ad featuring a same-sex female couple preparing to adopt a child scored an effectiveness rating of 9.7 out of 10, compared to the industry average of 5.2, and generated nearly 4 million online views (Muller, 2015). When including same-sex couples, advertisers are taking a more relatable, family-oriented approach. One study featured themes like “love is love” and “all types of families are wholesome” in its sample of LGBT-inclusive ads (Nölke, 2017). A 1994 IKEA advertisement, the first mainstream television ad to ever feature a same-sex couple, took this same approach, yet received extreme backlash from mainstream consumers.

Evidently, approval of homosexuality among mainstream audiences has increased dramatically since then, so negative effects prompted by gay-themed advertising are expected to diminish (Fiorina et al. 2006). Indication of this increasing approval can be seen in the percentage of people who found homosexuality to be unacceptable in the 1970s, which was 59%, compared to that of 1994, which dropped to 39% (Levitt and Klassen 1974; Weinberg 1972). This can likely be explained by the emergence of a new generation of progressive thinkers, which has shown to display greater overall approval for homosexual lifestyles. In fact, 70 % of American individuals born after 1981 are supportive of marriage equality, according to 2013 Pew Research (Kingkade, 2013).

Considering the transformations currently taking place in our society, it is reasonable to assume that the effects of increased media use are partially responsible. In addition to this, changes in how minority groups are portrayed in the media may likely cause a shift in attitudes about such groups. As mentioned before, homosexuals in advertising are being portrayed in much more positive ways, which studies have shown are effective in prompting consumer approval (Hefner et al. 2015). In one study, research participants who were exposed to positively-valenced gay photographs reported a stronger intention to interact with the photos (Hefner et al. 2015). In contrast, those exposed to more negative, anti-gay photographs reported less intention to interact with the content (Hefner et al. 2015). The amount of exposure that consumers have to gay media is also a factor in their inclination to interact with homosexual-related content. The same study also found that prior media exposure to gay-related content is positively correlated with accepting attitudes toward homosexual individuals.

Moreover, heavy media users who have prior exposure to pro-gay imagery are more susceptible to interacting with gay-related media than heavy media users who were exposed to more negatively-valenced gay media (Hefner et al. 2015). This evidence suggests that consumers who are exposed to negative messages about homosexual individuals will most likely be conditioned to feel disapproval toward homosexuality. This encompasses the effects of cultivation theory, which asserts that exposure to mass media can cultivate values and attitudes and may affect the way that we perceive the world around us (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). In regard to heterosexual mainstream consumers, they can be convinced that what they see on television represents the real world, regardless of whether it is true or fabricated (Berisha & Sjögren, 2016). Therefore, negative portrayals of homosexual individuals can likely sway people’s perceptions of gay or lesbian persons in the real world (Berisha & Sjögren, 2016). In accordance with this, the absence of homosexuals in advertising or stereotyping of them will have the same effect—leading viewers to believe that homosexuality is abnormal or that all homosexual individuals act a certain way (Berisha & Sjögren, 2016).

In relation to the idea of cultivation theory, while portrayals of homosexuals in advertising can affect consumer perceptions of the real world, it can also affect consumer-perceived social connectedness and empathy (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017). The results from this 2017 study demonstrated that portrayals of homosexuality in advertising can prime consumers to think about others outside of the context of the advertisement or the brand (Davies et al., 2002; Rosengren et al., 2013). This finding makes sense given that even among a largely heterosexual audience, portrayals of homosexuality in the advertisements generated more positive attitudes than the ads portraying heterosexuals, also demonstrating that attitudes toward homosexuality have changed over time (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017). Finally, because heterosexuals demonstrated positive attitudes toward gay-themed ads, this also indicates that there is more to be said about self-identity tactics in advertisements than gender and sexual orientation (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017), providing implications for marketers on how they should approach mainstream advertising in today’s market.


Past research has revealed that in general, homosexuality in advertising has elicited negative attitudes toward the ad and attitudes toward the brand, particularly among mainstream heterosexual consumers (Angelini & Bradley, 2010). Overall, extensive research on the general topic of attitudes toward homosexuality in advertising have determined that some variables that affect the valence of consumer attitudes are self-identification with ads, gender role portrayals, and level of tolerance of homosexuality.

Homosexual imagery does not resonate with the majority of heterosexual consumers, compared to their homosexual counterparts, due to alienation and inability to self-identify with advertising that uses explicit homosexual references and iconography (Angelini & Bradley, 2010). In addition, portrayals of homosexual stereotypes in ads tend to defy traditional gender roles, which also causes disapproval among heterosexuals, especially heterosexual males (Sjögren & Berisha, 2016; Um, 2014; Elliot & Elliot, 2005). Despite these confines set for advertisers, advertisements have begun to take them into consideration, and the latest research has suggested that things are looking up—attitudes about homosexuality and the effects of homosexuality in advertising have demonstrated increased approval amid mainstream audiences (Hester & Gibson, 2007; Hefner et al. 2015; Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017). With tolerance of homosexuality also proven to influence consumer attitudes, this recent evidence suggests that this will no longer be a concern for advertisers if the upward trend of approval and acceptance in society continues.


There is a large range of evidence suggesting that in addition to advertising methodologies, society as a whole is evolving. According to Ragusa (2005), between 1980 and 2000, Corporate America moved through three distinct phases in its handling of the LGBT population in advertising: (1) corporate shunning, (2) corporate curiosity, and (3) corporate pursuit. We can observe through numerous advertisements focused on equality and diversity, we are advancing through the third stage of corporate pursuit. More and more brands are embarking on a journey to inclusion of all consumers in their ads. Michael Wilke, executive director of the AdRespect Advertising Educational Program told the New York Times, “As society becomes more diverse, there’s more inclusive messaging, which reflects what society actually looks like.”

As evidenced in more recent research on the topic of homosexuality in advertising and its effects on mainstream consumers, there have been improvements in attitudes toward gay-themed imagery in advertising in the new decade. Researchers credit this to things such as more family-like and wholesome portrayals of individuals and same-sex couples (Nölke, 2017) and increasing acceptance of cultural and social differences (Berisha & Sjögren, 2016). Same-sex couples as parents are frequently categorized as “non-traditional,” but in this day and age, non-traditional is often considered the new norm.

One example of this is seen in a 2014 Honey Maid commercial that features a two-father family, portrayed as very wholesome (Ruggs, Stuart, & Yang, 2018). Countless more depictions of homosexual parents can be seen in modern mainstream advertisements. According to Ruggs, Stuart, and Yang (2018), these types of ads do not merely reflect societal changes already in place, but also that consumers hope that these ads will help to inspire progressive change in society. As previously discussed, some research has actually shown evidence of such change among consumers, seen in the form of social connectedness and empathy (Åkestam, Rosengren, & Dahlen, 2017). Companies who choose to join the inclusive movement and target gay consumers are likely to reap substantial benefits (Um, 2014). According to a 2014 Google Consumer Survey, over 45% of all consumers under the age of 34 say they’re more likely to repurchase products with an LGBT-friendly company. Also, a majority of these consumers say they prefer equality-focused brands (Witeck, 2016).

Witeck agreed that LGBT workers, businesses and consumers are directly shaping the American economy. He said, “Today improved laws, greater visibility and welcoming attitudes help address some of the longstanding discriminatory burdens that LGBT people and same-sex couples face. Nonetheless, LGBT Americans still confront many forms of legal, economic and social inequities in the absence of federal nondiscrimination laws covering employment, housing, public accommodations, healthcare and other aspects of American society. The barriers confronting transgender people are especially severe and must be challenged.”