They Power: gender and advertising


Pride month is here. Campaigns targeting the LGBTQIA+ and ally communities are everywhere. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, the resistance that started what we now know as Pride. Because of these efforts and many more, the visibility and acceptance of people who are gay and lesbian continues to expand. Furthermore, current expectations around gender, particularly gender neutrality, gender non-conforming, non-binary, genderfluid, and transgender identities, are shifting within our culture. This change will present creative opportunities and authenticity challenges for companies and brands well beyond Pride.

Stories about gender identity and representation are in the news almost constantly now, from politics to tech, culture, sports, fashion, and health & wellness. The frequency and breadth of these stories feels like a burgeoning shift in our culture towards a more inclusive view of gender.


Representation matters, not as a feel good space for the includers, but to sincerely help create a safer and more accepting world for others. Incidents like the Pulse nightclub shooting, the high rate of violence against LGBTQIA+ persons, and staggering mental health statistics make representation and normalization imperative. For LGBTQIA+ persons, seeing, hearing, and experiencing stories from people similar to themselves help them feel safe, secure, and valued.


C. who is 13 years old, non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, feels showing “more people that are not cis, maybe if some brands (if it would go with their company) taught more people about different genders and identities,” would go a long way to being more inclusive.

M, C’s mother said, “For those who identify this way, seeing themselves can be affirming. For those who don’t identify this way and don’t know and care about someone who does, a presence in marketing and media may be the only introduction and education they get - and may open them to caring and supporting when they do meet someone who identifies in these ways.”

The Trevor Project, a national organization that champions mental health for young people who identify as LGTBQ+, just released its inaugural National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health and uncovered that “39% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months,” with more than 50% of “transgender and non-binary youth having seriously considered.”  Amit Paley, executive director of the Trevor Project said, LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk, not because of their identities, but “because they face harmful rejection and discrimination from friends, families and communities that can make them feel their lives are worth less than their straight or cisgender peers.”

“I personally feel like the world is safer for people like me when we're normalized in media and advertising -- both of which have a huge influence on attitudes in America. Physically safer in some ways, emotionally and psychologically safer in others,” said Shar, a queer, middle-aged, masculine-of-center genderfluid brown person. (Contributors provided their own bios)


A number of companies are moving the dial in ways that are meaningful to consumers.


Google is releasing new gender neutral emojis, which feature characters with medium length hair and no other gender identifiers. Lyft announced that it now allows for more pronoun options in its app user interface, so riders can select the identity that fits them best. It was served up as a push into Pride, and part of their #TwoIsTooFew campaign (too few genders), along with other Lyft efforts, like legislative support regarding drivers’ license gender policies.

Adopting a broader use of gender identities in copy, in advertising, and apps can help users feel seen and welcome - like this Coke ad from 2018.

Bigger undertakings, such as changing internal company policies regarding gender expression for employees and customers, like Target has accomplished, can have a huge impact.

Shar commented, “Ads are great, … but actions are better, like Target adopting gender neutral changing rooms for customers and presenting gender neutral toys and clothes. I'm also deeply appreciative of gender neutral restrooms.”


While a number of brands are already actively engaged in the conversation, the area for the most opportunity is with brands already playing in a traditionally masculine space.


Intersectionality, or the overlapping of identities that experience discrimination, has been a part of the LGBTQIA+ movement for a long time. But some brands’ recent efforts to highlight those who experience multiple social categories, are helping to bring them to the forefront.

“Much of advertising, whether queer-focused or not, is very black and white (or just white). It'd be nice to see more brown people of all kinds, from Latinx to South Asian to First Nations indigenous, in all ads, not just genderfluid targeted ones,” said Shar.

Sephora just unveiled their “Identify as We” campaign with a visual of many pronouns, and models who are transgender, non-binary, of many racial backgrounds, and disabled. The ads feature Hunter Schafer, a transgender model, and Aaron Philips, a gender non-conforming model with cerebral palsy, among others. Sephora shut down their stores nationwide for diversity and inclusion training in preparation for this launch. They offer “free, 90-minute classes where clients of all gender expressions can explore their personal beauty style in a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment.”


Dove, following the myriad of successful, emotional campaigns that have centered around cis women, is furthering the conversation via their #ShowUs Campaign. Dove is working with Getty Images to create the world’s largest stock photo library of women and non-binary individuals to “shatter beauty stereotypes” including the intersections of ethnic background, age, size, and disability.

The campaign caught C’s eye and they said, while “it’s impossible to represent absolutely everyone… I’m pretty sure people can submit photos to represent themselves. I think more companies should do that.”



In the health and wellness category, Thinx, the underwear that can be worn during menstruation, has changed their marketing to include “People with periods” as they understood that non-binary, genderfluid, and trans men also used their products, in a way that was affirming their identities, to that point, Thinx featured, Sawyer, a trans man in their advertising in 2016.  

Gillette just debuted a touching ad featuring Samson, a young transgender man, shaving for the first time. He is getting advice from his father and it’s clear what a positive, loving relationship they have. “Growing up, I was always trying to figure out what kind of man I wanted to become and I'm still trying to figure out what kind of man I want to become," Samson says in the emotional spot.


Fashion brands love Pride month and often release limited edition clothing - while this can be seen as “Rainbow washing”, brands have learned to give back by donating the proceeds to organizations and groups that provide resources to the LGBTQIA+ communities, and to feature people within those communities in their advertising.


Bee (they/them), 18, from Texas, noted that Converse has “customizable pride shoes with lots of wonderful designs, with a few pride color palettes to choose from. They seem like the perfect things to wear to pride parades, and I just ordered a pair recently!” This year Converse’s Pride campaign features a range of people who vary in their identity, gender representation, and age. This year Converse is donating to the It Gets Better Project and Out Metro West.

Bee noted however, “I do feel that more representation ends up going to trans ppl (sic) who are FTM or MTF and non-binary or genderfluid people kind of get left out of that? I’ve yet to see a marketing campaign that targeted specifically those who fall under that non-binary umbrella.”

More brands are looking to create gender neutral or genderfluid clothing. ASOS, Nike, and H&M have all launched lines that claim neutrality. Much of them have relied on boxy, work wear or sweatsuit inspired pieces. Opportunity exists for rethinking design and presentation of what gender neutrality means in the fashion space.


The expanding definition of gender is making room for new and innovative upstarts to enter.


The Phluid Project, which opened in March of 2018, is a gender-free retail and community space in NoHo, NYC. Phluid is trying to create a place that is “free of gender norms and full of possibilities.” While retail is at the center of the experience, they also offer in-store classes and events, as well as online resources for a range of gender identities.

Non Gender Specific, a skincare company that claims “We are the brand for all humans,” began as a way to create a new consumer experience. “I never want a customer to feel uncomfortable buying whatever they want to buy,” Andrew Glass, its founder said in an article for GQ, “for me personally, it’s not enough to merge men and women together because we have people coming out who may not identify with either.”

Re-Inc, a gender neutral clothing company started by four women from the US World Cup Soccer team, wants to disrupt the way gender neutral clothing is marketed. For example, there will only be one shared size chart not separate charts for men and women.


The widening of the gender spectrum isn’t a trend but about bringing forward authentic life stories for everyone. It’s about elevating representation, and normalizing experiences, creating better relationships and realities for our consumers.

Contributors – bios:

Shar - is a queer, middle-aged, masculine-of-center genderfluid brown person living in the SF Bay Area and working on geospatial technology. S/he's interested in influencing all kinds of diversity amongst tech founders and employers, raising up folx who are socially or economically disadvantaged into tech careers, and finding opportunities to promote social justice through technology.

Bee - is 18 years old, non-binary (more on the agender side) and uses they/them pronouns, and is living in Texas.

C - is 13 years old, non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, and is living in the upper Midwest. They are interested in psychology, painting, drawing, playing their viola, and makeup.

M – C’s mother, is a middle-aged, female and uses she/her pronouns, and is living in the upper Midwest. She is a writer and university instructor in the humanities, with interests in textile arts and natural history.

Helpful link of definitions of gender identities