Inclusive ads from Miller Lite to Subaru to Bud Light have gone from trailblazing to commonplace to controversial again

A compilation of images used in Pride marketing, protests, and events throughout time

In late May, the North Face rolled out an ad campaign featuring drag queen and environmentalist Pattie Gonia. The outdoor equipment and clothing brand’s Instagram ad showed the rainbow-clad queen frolicking in forests and meadows, inviting viewers to “come out in nature … with us!”

Although it was the second year that Pattie Gonia and the North Face had collaborated on Pride-theme advertising, the campaign led conservatives to call for a boycott of North Face products. Similar situations have played out repeatedly this year, with big corporations such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Target and Kohl’s facing ire over marketing and merchandising efforts that include queer people.

For a long time, big companies ignored queer people — or if they did appear in ads, they were stereotyped and caricatured. As LGBTQ+ people gained more rights in the United States, corporations’ marketing efforts slowly became more inclusive. Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, according to Gallup — and rainbow-studded advertising is common — marketing campaigns featuring queer people are still provoking vitriol.

Let’s look at how we arrived here.

The early years: 1970 to 1990

Major corporations’ earliest efforts to court queer consumers happened after the 1969 Stonewall uprising and the first Pride march in 1970, a major turning point in the visibility of LGBTQ+ people and the early years of the modern gay rights movement.

First came the spirits. Because of their presence in bars and nightclubs, queer community hot spots, alcohol companies were among the earliest to court queer consumers, according to Ian Johnson, principal consultant at Out Now, an LGBTQ+ business development consultancy.

In the late 1970s, brands such as Miller Lite, Budweiser, Coors Light and Jägermeister started placing ads in regional queer newspapers. Swedish vodka brand Absolut followed suit in 1981.

Catering to queer customers was risky in the early-1980s as the AIDS epidemic started to devastate the LGBTQ+ community, leaving its members isolated and ostracized. At the time, there was little insight into queer people’s tastes and spending power, Johnson said. The risk of backlash for aligning a company’s identity with queer people was significant.

But the move proved fruitful for Absolut, which has maintained a constant presence in queer markets and has developed a deep partnership with GLAAD, the world’s largest queer advocacy group.

“Absolut is proud to have been one of the first brands to unabashedly advertise to the LGBTQ+ community,” the brand said in a statement to The Washington Post, adding that building community with queer consumers “made sense back in 1981, and it makes sense today.”

The presence of more queer characters in sitcoms such as “Ellen,” whose main character came out on TV in 1997, and “Will and Grace,” which debuted in 1998, raised LGBTQ+ people’s visibility. Meanwhile, early research of queer populations and their spending power encouraged more big companies to go after the market.

Gradually, big companies branched out from queer publications. Ikea, the Swedish furniture company, rolled out the first U.S. TV commercial to depict a gay couple in 1994. The ad — which featured two middle-aged men shopping for a dining room table and ran only after 9:30 p.m. in New York and D.C. — was heralded as a groundbreaking gesture of queer representation. But its run was short-lived, as the ad was subjected to backlash, provoking calls for boycotts and bomb threats against Ikea stores.

The desire to court queer consumers while avoiding public blowback led to a strain of advertising known as “gay vague,” using subtle elements that would register with LGBTQ+ people while flying over the heads of heterosexual audiences. These ads would often feature people of the same sex in domestic contexts without specifying the nature of their relationship.

After market research revealed that lesbians made up a pillar of Subaru’s customer base, the Japanese company leaned into the “gay vague” approach. One mid-1990s print campaign featured Subarus with license plates such as “XENALVR” (an allusion to “Xena: Warrior Princess,” a show loved by some lesbians) and “PTOWNIE” (a reference to Provincetown, Mass., a popular queer vacation spot).

One classic “gay vague” commercial from German automaker Volkswagen debuted during the coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997. The ad featured two men driving in a neighborhood and salvaging a discarded armchair. While queer viewers interpreted the men as a couple, straight viewers saw them as friends or roommates.

Though Volkswagen didn’t intend for the ad to depict a gay couple, the company’s response was unique because “they said they didn’t mind if people read it that way,” said Michael Wilke, a former Ad Age reporter and founder of AdRespect, a nonprofit archive of queer representation in advertising. “That was a real switch for advertisers,” Wilke said.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton declared June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, a gesture that ultimately ushered in a new era in queer marketing.

The rise of the rainbow: 2000 to 2014

The 2000s marked a turning point in cultural attitudes toward queer people. In 2002, the Human Rights Campaign introduced its Corporate Equality Index, a rating system for companies’ policies and practices for LGBTQ+ employees. The push for marriage equality gained strength, with Massachusetts becoming the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003, and states such as Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa and New Hampshire following suit. In 2011, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which had banned gay and lesbian service members from the armed forces, was repealed.

In this period, more corporations started caring about and catering to queer people in their ranks and beyond. Companies such as Nike, Time Warner Cable, Boeing and Microsoft expressed approval for same-sex marriage amid escalating political tension, and Pride celebrations began attracting more corporate sponsorship.

Queer people started showing up in ads as parents, romantic partners and employees, rather than as punchlines. In a 2013 ad for Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite, a man and a woman chat while reading on the beach. The woman smiles and says, “My husband is bringing me a drink right now,” to which the man responds, “So is mine.” The ad was among the first to use “husband” rather than “boyfriend” in reference to a gay couple.

In this era, companies were still concerned about the risk versus reward of courting queer consumers, according to Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications and an LGBTQ+ marketing expert.

“One question that arose over and over from some people was, ‘How many straight people do you lose if you gain a gay customer?’” Witeck said.

The threat of backlash heavily influenced this calculus. In 2012, J.C. Penney was applauded for rolling out catalogues for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day that featured real queer couples with their children, while the company faced a boycott from conservative group One Million Moms.

Transgender inclusion: 2015 to today

The national legalization of same-sex marriage — through the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges — broke barriers for companies that had been reluctant to seek queer consumers, according to Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD.

“It gave a permission slip to those who were just not giving it much thought,” Ellis said.

Meanwhile, the rise of social media made it easier for advertisers to cater to specific audiences online. Plus, younger consumers grew up preferring media that was more inclusive and diverse. All these factors created an environment in which big corporations loudly signaled their support of queer communities during Pride month, rolling out rainbow-plastered products and partnerships with queer advocacy groups. Ads became more diverse and inclusive, with less reliance on stereotypes. Lesbians and transgender people began to appear more frequently.

In 2019, Gillette made waves with a Facebook ad that showed a real transgender artist and activist, Samson Bonkeabantu Brown, being taught to shave by his father. The ad tenderly captured a significant moment in a transgender person’s transition.

“As a company that holds respect and inclusivity as an important value, we have a responsibility to make sure we are embracing and promoting inclusive portrayals of gender,” Gillette said in a statement at the time.

Years later, however, transgender representation in advertising has become contentious as anti-trans legislation and sentiment increases across the country. In March, Hershey faced blowback for including a transgender activist on packaging in Canada as part of a promotion celebrating International Women’s Day.

Bud Light’s short-lived partnership with trans comedian and influencer Dylan Mulvaney — via an Instagram video in which she showed off beer cans with her likeness that the brand sent to commemorate a year of her transition to womanhood — was met with vitriol from some conservative consumers, who dumped cans of Bud Light and called for a boycott of parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev, a longtime partner of GLAAD. The brand’s response, which didn’t directly address the hate directed at Mulvaney, angered queer people, many of whom joined the boycott. Bud Light’s sales have dipped so much that Modelo Especial has overtaken Bud Light as the country’s most popular beer.

In the lead-up to Pride this year, retailers such as Kohl’s, Walmart, Nike, PetSmart and the North Face have also received blowback from the far right for stocking items that extol equal rights and acceptance for gay, lesbian and transgender people. So far, they’ve succeeded in brushing off the backlash.

Though many companies consider queer-focused marketing a meaningful way to expand their brands’ reach, Ellis said, representation is still lagging. Portrayals of bisexual and nonbinary people in ads remain rare. And the bulk of advertising featuring LGBTQ+ people still comes during June, Ellis said.

“We are grossly underrepresented as a community,” Ellis said. Companies “have to do better.”

Editing by Lisa Bonos, Karly Domb Sadof and Haley Hamblin. Illustrations by Emma Kumer.

By Anisa