Why Brands Need to Support a Cause with More Than Messaging

During the 2018 Super Bowl, Ram, the truck-maker, ran a 60-second commercial showing various scenes of people providing service and helping others: a social worker assisting the needy, an animal rescue scene, an older sister helping a brother with a shirt. This was narrated with a voice-over by Martin Luther King giving a sermon extolling the virtue of service and generosity towards others.

The spot tried to communicate a message of unity and love. However, it received a fair bit of negative feedback after it aired. Consumers felt the truck maker was using the words of Martin Luther King to sell trucks. While well-intended (the ad was, in fact, pre-approved by the licensing estate of MLK), the commercial and its message was received as self-serving: “How can you take a deceased man’s words and use it to project American capitalism which is everything he stood against” wrote one Twitter user.

Research has suggested that the reputation of the brand as a “good citizen” is important to consumers when deciding to purchase a product (1). Yet, amidst a political and economic climate that is already divisive, how can brands support a cause without offending? Messages of diversity and equality, especially seem to stir controversy, as evidenced by our example. Look no further than how much of the nation’s attention has been drawn to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Nike’s newest campaign celebrating 30 years of “Just do it” featuring Colin Kaepernick is the talk of the town right now. (But that’s a topic for another post.)

In a recent study, we wondered how brands have been navigating the political landscape by investigating the national sentiment on the representation of LGBTQ in the media. We asked 1500 U.S. consumers how they felt about LGBTQ in advertising, whether brands were doing an appropriate job representing LGBTQ and how this impacted their purchasing decisions. We were particularly interested in LGBTQ as a social issue that not all consumers are aligned with. Yet the portrayal of LGBTQ in the media seems to be growing. GLADD, for instance, in its yearly diversity report found that LGBTQ characters on TV reached an all-time high in 2017 (2).

What we found is that consumers are split on the representation of LGBTQ in media today. Roughly a third said there should be more, a third said there should be less, and the remainder felt that the amount of LGBTQ representation in media today was about right. Keep in mind that this sentiment reflects that LGBTQ representation in the media is higher than it has ever been before.

Many consumers, in fact, appreciate the message of inclusiveness and embrace brands that support the LGBTQ community. 49% of our sample felt brands have a responsibility to advocate for the LGBTQ community. And when we showed them an LGBTQ ad, 39% felt more positive about the brand, 42% were neutral, and just a minority 19% reported feeling more negative about the brand. Clearly, while not a consensus, consumer sentiment overall leaned toward acceptance of the LGBTQ community. One-third of consumers even went so far as to say an LGBTQ friendly brand has a positive impact on their purchase decision.

Millennials have been a key driver of the message of diversity and inclusiveness. This finding is consistent with what others have reported as well (3). In our survey, this cohort, more than any other, self-described themselves as being advocates of multiple social causes, including environmental, racial, and animal welfare. Since they see themselves as taking responsibility to support disenfranchised groups, it’s no wonder that they expect others to as well. Nearly 60% of the Millennials in our study felt that brands have a responsibility to support the LGBTQ community.

Perhaps our biggest finding was the level of disapproval for the way LGBTQ were being (or not being) represented in the media. 1 in 4 reported being dissatisfied with how the LGBTQ community was portrayed. And this figure held even among groups that allied with LGBTQ causes. Respondents did not like the stereotypes and sensationalized portrayals, that is: “gay men are always more flamboyant. Lesbians are always manly.”

It seemed that anything less than a representation of how things really are had the potential to alienate consumers. For LGBTQ imagery, consumers wanted ‘natural.’ Too often minority groups were used to make a point or give the appearance of being inclusive. “They show very good looking and charming same-sex couples having the time of their lives and mixing with their friends. It’s not the most realistic to real life….Try to treat them like normal human beings like everyone else and just not try too hard to make a statement.”

An imperative to support diversity and inclusiveness while being urged to be subtle about it might sound like the definition of cool (i.e. you’re only cool if you don’t act like it) but consumers are right to challenge brands to work hard and do more. Brands are, after all, mixing the LGBTQ cause with commerce, so that can lead to backlash if not done right. As one of our respondents put it: “gay sexuality as a means to sell clothing” comes off as “inauthentic.” Or more bluntly:  “They’re just trying to sell and using people’s personal struggles to do so. It’s a money move.”

“Authenticity” hits the mark exactly. Brands simply can’t run an LGBTQ ad and call it a day. Nor will waving a rainbow flag once a year suffice. The challenge for a brand is to “walk the talk” if they want to show they truly embrace a movement or cause. It is not just representation in the media or advertising, but representation in personnel decisions, sponsoring LGBTQ causes and events as well. Without providing this kind of broader level of support, a brand running an LGBTQ inclusive ad starts to look opportunistic. In summary, brands need to “Stand behind what they say. Running an ad campaign using a same-sex couple is great but if the brand is going to do that why not endorse it publically. Make a statement. Support rallies and rights of individuals in court and in the community. If they really want to do this they need to be all in.”

It’s an effective investment for brands to connect with social causes, but also there are pitfalls if this is not done in a thoughtful and substantive way. Consumers expect that when brands support the LGBTQ community or any social issue, it must permeate through the company’s overall belief and mission. Corporate social responsibility isn’t a platform for making a company or product pitch, but a way to truly align with a cause you believe in.


    1. Taylor, Charles (2018) “On The Need for More Research on Corporate Social Responsibility Appeals in Advertising,” International Journal of Advertising.
    2. Glaad Media Institute (2018) “Where we are on TV.” https://www.glaad.org/whereweareontv17
    3. Achieve and the Cast Foundation (2017): “The Millennial Impact Report” http://www.themillennialimpact.com/latest-research
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