A New Netflix Series Offers Insight for Improving LGBT Content

The pink pound is estimated to be worth £6 billion per year in the UK alone. Yet it feels sometimes that companies have missed the mark when it comes to accurately communicating with the LGBT community. Worse, some of the content can make LGBT people feel unconnected. Indeed, 72 percent of the LGBTQ+ community think the way it is presented in advertising is tokenistic, according to research from Gay Times and Karmarama.

Whilst one appreciates brands' effort, there is a long way to go until true inclusiveness is achieved. Moreover, there are messaging pitfalls to avoid. One key is balance.

An example that brands can learn from is Netflix’s new, ground-breaking series "Heartstopper," a coming-of-age story about love and friendship. It's a refreshing change from normal LGBT representation.

Pulling on heartstrings

Many LGBT-themed shows can feel like the negative sides of being gay, such as bullying, suffering with mental health and stereotyping, are all that’s shown. And then, of course, a happy ending, wrapped up in twenty seconds.

Minorities often are depicted fighting for equality and embarking on a treacherous journey to get to the same stages in their life as their cisgendered, caucasian hetero counterparts.

Everyone’s journey and pain points are valid and should be discussed, showcased and truly heroed. However, this isn’t the be-all and end-all of being LGBT. Why does the negative side always seem to make the cut? In part because it’s the easy option.

A more engaging route depicts LGBT experiences in a positive light.

As we know, advertising and PR content can engage, educate and excite. Certainly emotive stories that try and empathize with the community have a place, but not always.

Content creators might consider whether LGBT messaging, advertising and marketing are engaging the LGBT community or educating the straight one. Both options are valid. However, brands must understand the difference between the approaches: one is for the LGBT community and one is to it.

How can you improve?

Bullying is a big theme in Heartstopper. However, the series cleverly is set after protagonist Charlie's difficult year. Instead, it shows him recovering and finding himself. Even though the severe bullying has stopped and Charlie is out, not all his problems have magically disappeared. Still, there is hope, humor and happiness in his life. Emotion isn't always sadness. It's hope as well.

Traditional advertising relies on engaging audiences through aspiration. Think of perfume ads. Most don’t make sense, but they depict an aspirational version of a situation that entices audience members to connect the product with a lifestyle.

LGBT content can also do that, which is where Heartstopper and another series, "Schitt’s Creek," succeed in engaging diverse audiences. Dan Levy, writer of Schitt’s Creek, shared that the series casts a light on “what the world could be like.”

Brands can do this too. What would the world be like when you take the negative out?

Making LGBT relationships heteronormative 

A common mistake in advertising is replacing a heterosexual couple in a family setting with a gay or lesbian couple (very rarely a trans person). Advertising executives applaud and think representation is accomplished.

Yes, LGBT people can have children, but not ALL same-sex couples have or want children!

There are approximately 200,000 same-sex families in the UK, roughly 15 percent of the LGB population. Therefore, creating content that shows heteronormative family settings and using same-sex protagonists is relatable to at most 1 in 10 LGB people.

You see content that depicts this is heteronormative because it usually features what we associate as a straight marriage with children. I’ve never seen content depicting more unique LGB family settings.

For example, LGB people who take the surrogacy route sometimes continue to involve the surrogate in their family. We cannot assume LGB family dynamics will be the same as hetero.

What to do instead

Most brands have relied on aspirational content to help market products. This heteronormative compromise seems to be their answer but that is still not an aspiration for most LGBT people. What Heartstopper got right was showing a sweet, touching love story that leaves people wanting that or hoping it will happen to them.

So, keep it authentic, not heteronormative. Create aspirational content for people to want to engage or envision others' experiences being more positive and reflective of what they experience in their own relationships.

Over-sexualization and stereotyping 

This happens less in advertising and brand message, but it exists. For example, we’ve all seen ads showing same-sex couples kissing or in intimate settings.

Again, that's a nice idea. But the same question arises: is this to engage the LGBT community or shock the hetero one?

Showing intimacy in same-sex couples helps normalize it in the mainstream. That said, there is much more to LGBT culture than this. Gay culture alone is vast, it runs deep in the community and is based on love, happiness and fun.

Drag is a good example, though it's also broken into the mainstream. In reality, though, it is just one part of everything else that's happening.

Brands that tap into this rich culture would not only engage the community, but could also educate other communities and maybe even educate younger LGB audiences that feel the current offering isn’t quite for them.

For example, my experience growing up, watching "Ugly Betty" and "High School Musical." In both, the supposed gay characters are never outed. Instead, these series rely on audiences to make assumptions and conclusions.

Aside from this, both of these characters are stereotypical and tokenistic. One is an effeminate bitchy personal assistant and the other also is an effeminate character, wearing pink, starting dramas and pursuing musical theatre. I didn’t identify with either character. They’re not like me. This left me feeling maybe I wasn’t part of the community.

How can you improve?

LGBT content has an opportunity to engage younger audiences in ways that show the breadth of the community, break stereotypes and take the focus off the shocking “what happens in the bedroom.” Dig deeper, be aspirational, but most important, be authentic.

Don’t focus on the sex. LGBT has such a strong, deep-rooted culture that is based on entertainment, happiness and fun. Let’s explore that. We are more than drag queens!

Jamie Love is CEO of Monumental and director of marketing, Pride Edinburgh