Advertisers as allies in the struggle for LGBTIQ equality, representation, inclusion

Advertisers have a significant influence on how people see others, as well as how they see themselves. Adverts influence how the public thinks about the world, how it is and how it should be. Throughout the world, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and gender non-conforming (LGBTIQGNC) inclusion in advertising is rare, and when LGBTIQ people are portrayed, it is often in ways that are stereotypical and stigma-inducing.

This negative or non-portrayal (which amounts to invisibility) of LGBTIQ people has a negative impact on how LGBTIQ people are treated by others on a daily basis. Anti-LGBTIQ ideas, often put forward by religion and government, and then reinforced by media, must be challenged to ensure that discrimination stops. Homo, les and transphobic violence against LGBTIQ people is rampant throughout Africa, with hate crimes, often extremely violent and even fatal, occurring frequently.

For these reasons, Accountability International, an international watchdog organisation based in Cape Town, began working with advertisers in 2014 and, with partners, started the Advertisers Activists Collective (AAC). Recognising that advertisers are uniquely positioned to be powerful allies in the struggle for LGBTIQ equality, the AAC has been working to improve the ways that advertisers and businesses represent LGBTIQ people in advertising.

The AAC has published a set of five guidelines, the #EqualityChallenge, to help advertisers, marketers and businesses do better on LGBTIQ inclusion. These include asking advertisers to not stereotype, to show the world as it truly is by including LGBTIQ people in ads, and to build their LGBTIQ teams and knowledge from within and without. The aim is to promote an understanding of the spectrum of genders and sexualities, ideas such as including androgynous models in adverts, and including LGBTIQ people and issues in storylines as regular representations of the diversity in our society.

The response from advertisers has been encouraging — advertising executives have been supportive and are endorsing the guidelines — many have signed up for #EqualityChallenge training for their staff.

The King James Group, co-led by co-founder and chief creative officer Alistair King, was the first to endorse the guidelines, with King, whom is widely admired and lauded as one of the most inspiring creatives in South African advertising, also volunteering as an ambassador to this project.

Joe Public United, Grid Worldwide and FCB Africa quickly followed suit, endorsing the #EqualityChallenge guidelines. These agencies have all already participated in or signed up for trainings on the #EqualityChallenge. TBWA (with agencies TBWAHuntsLascaris, Grid Worldwide and Yellowwood all represented) also participated in a training. The trainings are offered at no cost to the ad firms and build understanding of LGBTIQ issues in such a way that staff are directly enabled to immediately apply what they learn to their work and in their own workplaces.

Taking this initiative even wider, the Creative Circle, a membership body with great influence in the South African advertising industry, also recently issued its endorsement of the #EqualityChallenge.

We have also seen some inspiring adverts and campaigns coming from these agencies during the past year: On Freedom Day, Grid Worldwide’s #HopeJoanna campaign celebrated the South African Constitution and the right of same-sex couples to marry; on Human Rights Day, Joe Public United launched a #nothingtocorrect campaign for People Opposing Women Abuse against “lesphobic rape” (choosing a non-stigmatising term over the problematic term “corrective rape”); and FCB Africa has created an inclusive and funny ad for Debonairs featuring a lesbian couple, proving you can be funny without reinforcing harmful LGBTIQ stereotypes.

With ad agencies increasingly embracing the values of inclusion, non-discrimination and equality, AI and the AAC now see a way forward for LGBTIQ inclusion to become an industry norm in South Africa.


The work is led by Accountability International, with partners the University of the Witwatersrand, Gender DynamiX, African Men for Sexual Health and Rights, House of Rainbow, INERELA+ and the Southern Africa Trans Forum.

Czerina Patel is Accountability International Advertisers Activists Collective Initiative manager; Lucinda van den Heever is a senior researcher at Accountability International.

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