This month, Olympic gold-medal winner formerly known as Bruce Jenner made waves on Vanity Fair’s cover with the directive “Call Me Caitlyn,” winning the hearts and minds of millions. Still, the issue of shifting gender identities is polarizing, and well-intentioned marketers are understandably nervous, wondering what they should do.
Yet the entertainment industry boarded the LGBT acceptance train well before Caitlyn Jenner hit the spotlight. Laverne Cox became the first openly transgender person nominated for a Prime-time Emmy Award in the acting category for her role in “Orange Is the New Black.” Amazon’s “Transparent” won the Golden Globe for Best TV series, musical or comedy.
This month, ABC Family premiered its new reality series “Becoming Us,” starring Carly, a transgender woman, and her son coming to terms with her identity. In an interview, Tom Ascheim, president of ABC Family, explained: "It's a moment in our society when the world is focusing on transgender issues. It only helps us."
In fact, ABC Family has a long history of embracing LGBT identity taboos. The network’s No. 1 show, “Pretty Little Liars,” features a teenage lesbian protagonist; its runner up, “The Fosters,” stars a biracial lesbian couple.
ABC Family can capitalize on this growing opportunity, in part, because its audience is majority female. While just over half (55%) of Americans agree with the statement “I admire Bruce Jenner’s openness about his gender transition,” a full two-thirds (66%) of women say they feel this way. It’s been reported that MAC cosmetics has already started discussions with Caitlyn to become the face of its makeup line.
It would make perfect sense, given the brand’s nonconformist DNA, historic support of the LGBT community, and a largely progressive female (or male trans identifying) user-base. Historically, LGBT-friendly brands, like Subaru and JetBlue, may want to be part of “I Am Cait” or risk missing an important moment in LGBT media history.
Other beauty, fashion, and even CPG brands (hello Oreo rainbow) may benefit from genuine LGBT outreach.
But while tolerance is the trend, trying to align with a new, arguably pivotal moment in the LGBT movement may not be the best move for marketers late to the party.
At moments like these, lack of authenticity will cut two ways. Brands without a credible approach or a strong history of speaking to an LGBT audience risk alienating LGBT people, who may view motives with suspicion. Meanwhile, people who aren’t on the path to transgender acceptance will speak out, probably loudly.
Caitlyn’s critics are already expressing their opinions in social media, using words like “sick,” “mentally ill” and “disgraceful.”
This doesn’t mean new to LGBT outreach should automatically stay away. Caitlyn is getting almost as much flack in social media for Kardashian connections as her gender identity.
But marketers need to be prepared with a response to the negativity that will come.
A perfect example of preparedness and creativity is how Honey Maid reacted to critics after its ‘Wholesome Family’ campaign featured a homosexual couple. Rather than backpedal, the brand elevated that conversation and reinforced their core message of family and love. And in doing so, Honey Maid authenticated itself in the eyes of LGBT people and allies everywhere.
One could say that launching a reality show about a famous transgender person is a seminal moment in today's TV landscape. Is this the way we will bring challenging topics to the forefront in the future?
Shows like E!’s “I Am Cait,” ABC Family’s “Becoming Us,” and TLC’s “All That Jazz” actually owe a debt to PBS. In the 1970s, “An American Family” laid the groundwork for going behind the public face of the seemingly “perfect” family to depict both the marital tensions that led to divorce (still considered slightly shameful in 1973) and the public coming out of their son as gay. The program challenged conventional views of widely accepted American family life.
No one is going to mistake a reality program on E! for a PBS documentary. But when reality TV becomes a way for the larger population to be exposed to ideas and ways of life that previously remained under wraps, it says something about the impact of the format on societal norms.
A lot more than pure ratings delivery rests on the performance of “I Am Cait.” Americans will be taking note. Advertisers with a clear stake in LGBT marketing and media history will be there. Changes like these don’t happen overnight. But the re-wiring of marketing and communications has begun.