With the unveiling of her Vanity Fair cover and new identity, Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner has, in a way, become the posterchild for the transgender community. And that’s in part because her transition is arguably a watershed moment in pop culture broadly and for advertising specifically.
And with increased attention on the LGBT community as a whole as a result of the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision on marriage equality, depictions of transgender men and women are only expected to increase in mainstream media. Not only does it provide a more accurate portrayal of American consumers overall, it also gives marketers an opportunity to tell more authentic and honest stories.
In recent years, American consumers have certainly seen more transgender individuals in mainstream media.
Advocate Chaz Bono, for example, appeared on ABC reality show Dancing with the Stars in 2011.
And then Netflix’s Orange is the New Black debuted in 2013, featuring actress Laverne Cox, which was followed by Amazon’s Transparent in 2014, which is another series that includes transgender themes.
But it’s arguably Jenner and her upcoming E! series, I Am Cait, which is set to launch July 26, that really mark a new chapter in both culture and advertising.
According to 180LA Creative Director Pierre Janneau, recent attention to transgender issues means brands will surely pick up on this topic and start showing more transgender consumers through “real, authentic, personal human stories.”
“Whether we relate to the subject or not, these are undeniably great examples of determination and self-acceptance that we all can learn from,” Janneau says.
But, not surprisingly, like any change, it will undoubtedly take time.
“Now, for bigger manufactured broadcast advertising, brands will probably be more cautious of showing transgender [consumers] as representations of their audience and society,” Janneau adds. “This will happen at some point but it will surely take more time.”
According to Bob Witeck, president of PR and marketing firm Witeck Communications, the transgender population has always been a challenge in mainstream media in part because there are so few examples.
“The transgender [community] has always been identified as a joke or a foil,” Witeck says. “In other words, [gender is] confused or mistaken…there is a sense to deceive. It’s never out of respect. It’s been more of a punchline in years past.”
A Brief Timeline of Notable Campaigns
But that’s not to say some brands haven’t included transgender men and women in serious and/or respectful advertising campaigns.
Google+ Your Business, for example, posted a video about a transgender-friendly gym in Kansas City, Missouri on June 16, which has since garnered 1.3 million views.
High-end department store Barney’s featured 17 transgender models in its Spring 2014 campaign, Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters.
In November 2014, beauty brand Redken announced transgender model Lea T. was its newest “brand muse.”
And, in March 2015, Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear brand posted a video featuring YouTube star Jazz Jennings as part of its #SeeTheRealMe campaign, which it says is “about girls having the courage to show who they really are, and what makes them unique.”
Coincidentally, TLC’s I Am Jazz, which the network says is about “transgender teen Jazz Jennings and her amazing supportive family” will debut July 15.
“I have a transgender son and it warms my heart to begin to see big brands embrace that this is part of our populace and our culture,” says Kirk Souder, CCO of creative agency Enso. “For me, some of the exciting things I’m seeing is it’s not just to say, ‘Here, I’m transgender. Here’s my story,’ but what I love seeing, like the campaign from Johnson & Johnson…is it’s using the transgender experience to be emblematic of something we all do – which is to dare to live more authentically and honestly – as part of a larger campaign.”
And that, Souder says, was also reflected in the Google+ video, which was very honest in its depiction of the transgender experience.
“Even the scene of him taking his shirt off and showing [the results of] surgery was a really powerful moment between my son and me,” Souder says. “He could see kind of what his future laid out to a degree in a normal way. Here’s this very similar person who has been through a similar experience and the world’s looking at it and that’s okay.”
And he says Google’s openness with the subject matter will likely “[give] permission to other advertisers.”
But There’s Still a Long Way To Go…
At the same time, marketing experts estimate the transgender community is probably about a decade behind where the gay and lesbian market stands today. In fact, David Paisley, senior research director of Community Marketing, which provides LGBT research, marketing insights and strategies, says a big focus in coming years will simply be ensuring the transgender community has equal rights.
“I think the transgender community and movement for full equality is maybe a decade behind, but…transgender imagery and role models are beginning to appear in ads even in corporate America, but they tend to be more targeted toward the LGBT community,” Paisley notes.
And Then Along Came Caitlyn
However, Paisley calls Jenner’s transition “a pivotal moment.”
And that’s in part because Jenner is such a well-known figure to so many consumers. In other words, Baby Boomers know Jenner the Olympian and Millennials know Jenner from Keeping up with the Kardashians.
“Caitlyn Jenner was a known person to Baby Boomers even — to all the generations – and it’s such a big story for so many people. It’s very positive for the movement,” Paisley says. “It’s hard not to like Bruce Jenner. I think for a lot of Baby Boomers who grew up with Bruce Jenner, it’s a really important moment.”
And, he notes, it will be interesting to see if Jenner gets corporate sponsors herself.
The Status Quo in the Meantime
For now, Witeck notes many brands including transgender spokespeople are in the fashion and beauty industries and include “well-known individuals who are high profile…and indeed look as the gender they say they are. It’s the safe thing to do,” he says. “Over time, there will be a deeper honesty about transgender people and it will be cut in all paths of life in reflecting who they are as individuals without the backdrop of fashion and modeling. But those are the lowest risk opportunities we face and they make sense…it’s a start.”
Souder agrees casting will eventually become more diverse and, as a result, more accurately reflective of the U.S. populace.
And, again, this is partially due to demands from Millennial consumers.
“Brands hope to reach younger audiences and Millennials will look for fresh messengers and images to do it,” Witeck says. “I’ve learned watching all of these brands try to make themselves more contemporary – they’re trying to refresh their appeal, look and perceptions…and LGBT imagery and narratives are one of the most tested and successful paths.”
And, Paisley notes, the bisexual community is another interesting angle that isn’t really being discussed.
“There’s a whole other element of the community that we haven’t seen a lot from a marketing standpoint and that may change, especially with our young people under 25 that are much more likely to [identify] as bisexual,” Paisley adds.