Embracing Gender Fluidity in Advertising Internally & Externally

By Joanna Valente

Mastercard's "#AcceptanceMatters"

Everyone wants to be included. We often don't think of advertising as a way community is built, but historically, it is a significant way culture is defined and perceived. Need I remind you of Nike's "Just Do It" campaign from 1988 or De Beers' "A Diamond is Forever" from 1947, both literally changing those industries, and public perception, forever as we know it?

Influence is a powerful tool, and using that influence for good is invaluable. While many brands are embracing LGBTQ+ inclusivity in their marketing, tackling gender nonconformity authentically can still present a challenge or missed opportunity for some. However, this is a necessity for brands existing in the now and moving into the future gracefully.

People who are gender fluid, nonbinary, or nonconforming often doesn't get as much attention or inclusion in the media as they should. And this, of course, needs to change.

For younger generations, moving away from the gender binary openly is becoming more and more common. For instance, according to Gallup research presented by organization DoSomething at an ANA event, of the respondents, "35 percent know someone who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun and 59 percent believe forms should include options beyond the binary ('man' and 'woman'), according to Pew research in 2020."

Gen Z is also a generation that will continue to have more spending power as they age — and also make purchases differently than older generations. For example, DoSomething also stated that "generation Z is a generation that makes purchases based on brand purpose: 66 percent of generation Z said a brand's association or support for a social cause had a positive impact on their overall impression of that brand — and 55 percent buy to benefit a good cause."

The idea that gender identity can develop or change over time is hugely important to younger generations. RPA conducted a study on gen Z in 2019, stressing this, writing that "decisions to question, label and identify gender and sexuality are occurring at increasingly younger ages. Gender and orientation are talked about as a construct: subjective, fluid, and maybe less important in defining who you are than we assume."

This insight alone should push marketers to question how and why we market to different genders and demographics, in a way that is relevant, personal, and powerful — without being insensitive or outdated.

That being said, it's important not to veer into rainbow washing or stereotyping merely for ads — and why internally changing culture is a key component of genuinely reaching this demographic. Josch Chodakowsky, director of research and innovation at ANA, wrote in an ANA article how "this community is made up of distinct individuals who don't want to just see performative allyship but messages that speak to them on an individual level with honesty, authenticity, and care."

Of course, changing cultural mindsets, stereotypes, and stigmas is a challenge. As fast-changing as the world is, real actionable change also takes time and effort, both internally and externally for brands. Saying something once, whether in an ad or a staff meeting, isn't enough.

Repeating the message in different ways and cadences (and to different demographics), as well as encouraging people to take part in educating each other and themselves, is how real change happens.

Below are ways for brands to foster growth and inclusivity internally and externally, along with campaign examples.

External Brand Campaigns


Allowing people of all ages to see themselves in ads and products, and having products break the mold, can be life changing. Creating toys or games that break gender norms and roles can indirectly teach children to move beyond expectations, for instance, whether it enables girls to feel empowered to pursue STEM or dismantle unhealthy body image ideas. This can help educate people before they even reach adulthood, helping to positively inform mindsets.

Mattel's Creatable World does just this. It is a customizable doll line for kids, which Matthew Schwartz,  senior manager of marketing communications at the ANA, wrote about in an article, stating that "the most notable aspect of the dolls is that they do not conform to gender norms, reflecting a growing shift among consumer brands to transcend prescribed notions of gender in their marketing and advertising." 

Another, now iconic campaign, is Mastercard's "True Name" effort, which allowed customers to use their preferred names on their credit cards, regardless of what their legal name is. The campaign also sought to raise awareness on discrimination transgender or nonbinary people face, described in an ANA case study:

"Research shows that 60 percent of transgender people report experiencing discrimination when applying for a name or gender change, causing many to forego the process altogether. As a result, 68 percent of transgender people say that none of their IDs had the name and gender they preferred. Moreover, 32 percent who have shown an ID card with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation were verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted. As a result, for the transgender and non-binary communities, their payment card can serve as a daily reminder of their misrepresented identity and a target for abuse as they go about their daily lives."

Similarly, Citi's "True Name/Project Hello" campaign also does this, and encouraged people to use their real names on their credit cards as well.



Internally


When it comes to internal changes, encouraging employees to list their preferred pronouns (such as she/her, he/him, or they/them) in email signatures can help foster a warm and welcoming environment where people are encouraged to be their real selves in all facets of their lives. I personally do this in my email signature, and while it's a tiny detail, it personally means a lot to me. 

Small steps like this are more important than we realize as they prevent assumptions from being made about someone's identity based on appearance. Emails Y'all also recommended using the gender neutral "they/them" pronouns in brand or campaign emails to avoid alienating anyone. 

Greg Wright, the VP of content marketing at ANA, also stressed the importance of creating employee resource groups, explaining in an ANA article, "Employee resource groups can be a great way to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups who share a characteristic, such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so forth. The groups exist to provide support and help in personal or career development and to create a safe space where employees can bring their whole selves to the table. They are often open to allies as well. ERGs can also serve as an internal resource to reduce the risk of improper messaging."

Ultimately, the advertising industry has a duty to itself to understand all of its consumers — and to accomplish that, fostering gender inclusivity in all ways has to happen both internally and externally. Otherwise, the effort cannot be truly authentic.


Joanna Valente is a director of editorial and content development at ANA.


The views and opinions expressed in Industry Insights are solely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the ANA or imply endorsement from the ANA.