Trans and non-binary representation is going mainstream in advertising, with brands like e.l.f. Beauty, Mastercard, and Starbucks on board

Mastercard True Name
‘s ‘True Name’ campaign Mastercard
  • Brands are increasingly including LGBTQIA+ people in their ads.
  • It’s the latest example of marketers tying themselves to societal causes.
  • But there’s a risk if consumers think brands are capitalizing on causes for their benefit.
  • This article is part of a series called “The Cost of Inequity,” examining the hurdles that marginalized and disenfranchised groups face across a range of sectors.

In April the travel company Orbitz rolled out “Travel As You Are,” a national ad campaign promoting inclusivity, with prominent LGBTQIA+ people including Cameron Lee Phan, a nonbinary Vietnamese American model. The campaign harked back to one of its campaigns from the early 2000s, when it first created ads featuring openly gay couples, drag personalities, and celebrities.

Ads featuring LGBTQIA+ people, including trans and nonbinary individuals, have been on the uptick in recent years, according to a GLAAD study from February, which found that 15 major brands collectively ran inclusive ads during the Super Bowl in 2020 and 2021 with LGBTQIA+ people being largely invisible until then. And brands are increasingly catering to the LGBTQIA+ community in their products.

Mattel introduced a “gender-neutral doll” in 2019. Levi’s put out its first genderless collection called Unlabeled in 2020. Starbucks ran an ad with a trans boy assuming his new identity for the first time. Mastercard, Citi, and BMO Harris started letting transgender and nonbinary individuals use their chosen names on their credit cards in an initiative called True Name. And United Airlines gave people the option to choose a gender other than male or female when booking a ticket.

“Twenty years ago, the only places you saw gender nonconformity in any way, shape, or form was maybe just on MTV with RuPaul or makeup,” said Kendra Clarke, senior vice president of data science and product development at ad agency Sparks & Honey, who identifies as a Black, queer, nonbinary femme. “Now it’s much more widespread.”

Since then, celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and Elliot Page have pushed the conversation while beauty and fashion influencers have blurred gender lines. The makeup brands Benefit Cosmetics and Elf Beauty said that they have featured nonbinary and trans models in their ads since about 2015.

Overall, marketers are increasingly tying themselves with societal causes to appeal to consumers.

“People focus on IQ and EQ, but we have an internal metric we call ‘DQ’ or the decency quotient, which is that we should be doing well as a company by doing good for society,” said Raja Rajamannar, chief marketing officer at Mastercard. “Transgender and nonbinary people have been harassed, targeted, and discriminated against, and this was something we realized we could not only take a stand on but also a pain point for them that we could solve.”

Millennials and Gen Zers, in particular, bridle at being labeled and are more fluid and vocal about their gender identities than previous generations. Fifty-six percent of millennials and about half of Gen Z adults in the US see notions of binary gender as outdated, according to a study by the Orlando, Florida-based ad agency Bigeye. And almost 60% of those aged 13 to 21 think forms that ask about gender should include options besides “male” or “female,” according to Pew Research.

LGBTQIA+ Americans are also estimated to have $1 trillion in spending power, according to the marketing strategist Bob Witeck, cited by NBC News. With this group increasing in size (5.6% of US adults identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in 2020 up from 4.5% in 2017, according to Gallup), brands are realizing the value of adapting their marketing accordingly.

“When you see societal shifts like this as a brand, you have a choice: You either lead culture, go alongside culture, or you follow it,” said Kory Marchisotto, chief marketing officer at Elf Beauty. “You have to ensure that you’re aligned with your community. If you’re a brand that’s not celebrating inclusivity today, you might have a problem in achieving your business objectives.”

Since Citi launched its True Name cards in October, it has seen more than 10,000 people update their names on their cards. And Benefit’s 2020 campaign “Love Archually,” which featured the trans influencer Nikita Dragun, drove more than $600,000 in online sales at Sephora, according to its SVP of marketing, Jennifer Whipple.

But there’s a risk if consumers think brands are just capitalizing on the LGBTQIA+ community for their benefit.

“Representation can backfire when communities are othered and not included throughout the process,” said Asad Dhunna, the founder and CEO of The Unmistakables, a UK-based consultancy.

“There’s an adage amongst disability campaigners, ‘Nothing about us without us,’ which brands should apply more broadly to other underrepresented communities.”

Spark & Honey’s Clarke predicted the gender conversation would continue to gain steam. The agency tracks cultural and social trends based on online chatter and said the conversation around individual identities is predicted to grow to 186% of its current trend size within the next 24 months.

Still, there’s a lot more work to be done in improving representation, with transgender representation in advertising having been virtually nonexistent so far.

“We need to reconsider how we may be casting the trans and nonbinary archetype too narrowly,” Clarke said. “Instead, we need to realize that anyone can be behind the counter in a Starbucks ad, or anyone can be an engineer in an IBM ad.”