Risks And Rewards For Advertisers Aligning With Transgender Content

With ABC Family’s “Becoming Us,” TLC’s July 15 debut of “I Am Jazz,” and E!’s upcoming “I Am Cait," advertisers have a growing number of opportunities to align with programs that showcase transgender families. But will they court controversy if they do so? 

Horizon Media’s Finger On The Pulse survey platform has addressed the issue. 

General tolerance of transgender identities doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding, which may cause advertisers some hesitation. In the abstract, nearly all American adults are accepting of transgender people. More than three in four (77%) say “when it comes to transgender people, I have a “live and let live” attitude, according to the survey. Women are more likely than men to say they “agree a lot” with this attitude of acceptance (48% vs. 36%). 



Yet despite this surface acceptance, at a deeper level, most Americans are still uncomfortable or even resistant to the realities of gender transition; Just over half (53%) agree with the statement “I’m uncomfortable with people changing their gender,” and a strong majority (71%) believe “a person’s true gender is the one they’re born with.” 

Moreover, this discussion about transgender identity is opening a broader conversation about gender roles. More than three in four American adults (77%) believe “even for heterosexual people, gender roles have become less clear-cut these days.” Women are more likely than men to "agree a lot" with this sentiment (36% vs. 26%).  

“The results give programmers and advertisers something to think about,” said Sheri Roder, chief of the Why Group at Horizon Media. “There is more social pressure now to publicly espouse acceptance of people and their personal choices, including gender identity, whether or not you truly acknowledge this behind closed doors. So a question remains about how much people will want to see these stories play out on screen.” 

For advertisers, deciding which transgender program to become affiliated with may be best determined by the brands themselves rather than subject matter.

"Tolerance is certainly the trend, and it’s not just transgender people on TV. The [Supreme Court] decision on same-sex marriage is a historic reversal of old attitudes,” says Kirk Olson, VP of TrendSights, Horizon. “But trying to align with a new, arguably pivotal moment in the LGBT movement may not be the best move for marketers who are 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. People who aren’t on the path to transgender acceptance will speak out, probably loudly.” In fact, Caitlyn’s critics are already speaking out in social media using many less-than-PC phrases." 

When it comes to ratings, the draw of a bona fide celebrity in transition may make all the difference for advertisers. ABC Family's "Becoming Us," for instance, lacks a well-known personality and has struggled to attract viewers since it debuted June 8. The series initially garnered only 638,000 viewers -- half of its lead-in series "The Fosters" -- and has since continued to drop over the past three weeks. It seems people just aren't tuning in.  

"This switch in what’s expressed outwardly versus felt inwardly creates a tricky landscape for marketers and advertisers," says Horizon's Roder. "But 'I Am Cait' will almost certainly post record-setting premiere viewership numbers for E!.

Regardless of how people personally feel about transgenderism, content that explores 'otherness' in this way carries a strong curiosity draw. The fact that such a well-known person is at the center of the story will amplify viewership as well.”

Jenner's series may resonate more effectively with women-focused advertisers because Jenner is more likely to be admired by women for her openness, while men remain slightly conflicted. Overall, a slight majority of men and women (55%) agree that they admire Jenner’s openness about gender transition. But within this slight majority, women are more likely than men to feel this way (66% vs. 45%).  

"It’s been reported that MAC cosmetics has already started discussions with Caitlyn to become the face of its makeup line," says Olson. "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 or and JetBlue may want to be part of 'I Am Cait' or risk missing an important moment in LGBT media history.”   

This doesn’t mean brands that are 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," continues Olson. “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,” he says. "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," he adds.

Ultimately, the speed at which the majority of social media posters adopted “Caitlyn” affirms today’s greater social pressure to publicly demonstrate acceptance, regardless of one’s true feelings on the topic. That bodes well for advertisers seeking to participate in this discussion.

"One could say that launching a reality show about a famous transgender person is a seminal moment in today's TV landscape," says Roder. "When reality TV becomes a way for the larger population to be exposed to ideas and ways of life that previously would have 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. As for everyone else? Changes like these don’t happen overnight. But the re-wiring of marketing and communications has begun."  

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