Homosexuality in advertising
In response to the increasing societal interest in the LGBTQ+ community, the topic of LGBTQ+ is gaining popularity in various academic disciplines. Traditionally, homosexuality has been a longstanding subject of importance in art, feminist studies, and fashion (Fleisher 1996; Geczy and Karaminas 2013; Schacht 1998). More recently, a growing number of studies in marketing and advertising fields have addressed homosexuality with a few distinctive patterns.
First, methodologically, much has relied on qualitative approaches to research the occurrence of homosexuality in marketing. They include mainly ethnographic approaches (Balzer 2005; Hopkins 2004) and case studies of specific cultural settings such as the movies, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Gudelunas 2017), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! (Balzer 2005), Paris Is Burning (Balzer 2005), and RuPaul Charles’s RuPaul’s Drag Race (Brennan and Gudelunas 2017; Daems 2014). Such conceptual and exploratory knowledge invites empirical investigations into LGBTQ+ in marketing with a broad group of customers. Somewhat surprisingly, there is little empirical work on LGBTQ+ culture in the fashion marketing and advertising literature despite its increasing prevalence among mainstream media.
Second, extant empirical studies, mostly in the advertising literature, examined the effectiveness of portraying homosexuality in media where mixed findings were observed. For example, Åkestam et al. (2017) showed that portrayals of homosexuality in advertising elicit social connectedness and empathy, which enhance positive advertising effects. Contrarily, (El Hazzouri et al. 2019) demonstrated that ads presenting same-sex couples (vs. ads featuring mixed-sex couples) can result in negative responses to the ad and to the brand by evoking feelings of disgust. Tuten (2005) reported that queer consumers show positive responses to queer-friendly cues while heterosexual consumers show neutral responses. Relatedly, further studies identified different advertising cues leading to different reactions. For example, mixed sexual advertisements elicit favorable responses to a greater extent than only queer-themed advertisements do (Gong 2019). Additionally, regarding heterosexual consumers, implicit queer-themed advertising is received more favorably than explicit queer-themed advertising (e.g., Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005; Um 2016).
Third, in line with the mixed effects of queer-themed advertising, studies investigated boundary conditions that may determine its positive or negative performance. Various factors examined ranged from individual characteristics, such as gender (e.g., Hester and Gibson 2007), attitudes toward homosexuality (e.g., Bhat et al. 1998), tolerance toward homosexuality (e.g., Um 2016), and social dominance orientation (e.g., El Hazzouri et al. 2019) to contextual factors, such as moral-identity priming (El Hazzouri et al. 2019).
Fourth, much research has focused on queer consumers, referred to as the dream market, exploring how brands can attract this high-potential market with queer-targeted and mainstream media (Descubes et al. 2018). However, much remains to be learned about how mainstream (heterosexual) consumers view such media marketing and how they respond to the brand. The investigation into mainstream consumers’ receptions of homosexuality ads is particularly important in the fashion and beauty industry (Nölke 2018), mainly because the goal of such advertising would go beyond targeting queer consumers. In fact, mainstream fashion and beauty brands are recognizing LGBTQ+ influencers as new marketing mavens attracting a wide variety of customers. That is, their expertise in beauty and fashion has drawn a vast number of followers from not only LGBTQ+ but also from mainstream consumer communities. Indeed, mass market brands such as MAC Cosmetics enjoy employing queer men and drag queens as brand ambassadors and/or collaborators (Brennan and Gudelunas 2017). Additionally, such a strategy would benefit brands by adding value of diversity and inclusivity, which would further enrich brand authenticity and brand equity.
This study thus delves into the phenomenon of queer-themed advertising for fashion brands from the perspective of mainstream consumers. It is also noteworthy that, among the LGBTQ+ communities, we focus on drag queens presented in advertising because they are emerging as key influencers for mainstream media and thus fashion and beauty marketing. For example, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a cultural icon and an enormous stepping stone into mainstream culture for this traditionally marginalized subculture (Brennan and Gudelunas 2017; Daems 2014). As the first drag queen superstar, RuPaul has been participating in ad campaigns with fashion brands like MAC Cosmetics’ Viva Glam campaign and L.A. Eyeworks. However, little research attention has been paid to this specific subculture; this investigation also addresses the recent call to consider additional gender identity categories beyond homosexuality, such as drag queens and transgender in marketing research (Eisend 2019; Kates 1999). Therefore, for this study, we use the term drag queens to refer to cisgender males who dress as women for the purpose of performing and entertaining audiences that are aware they are men (Hopkins 2004).
Social identity theory
To understand how mainstream consumers respond to drag queen-themed advertising, this study focuses on two factors: (1) the way advertising portrays drag queen imagery (implicit vs. explicit) and (2) consumers’ individual characteristics relating to the drag queen phenomenon (tolerance toward drag queens). Social identity theory (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Tajfel 1978) guides us to propose the effects that each factor individually and combined may have on mainstream consumers’ responses. According to social identity theory (SIT), individuals define themselves partly in terms of a relevant membership in a social group. In this sense, individuals position themselves within various social groups that reflect their personal idiosyncratic characteristics and further define in-group characteristics (Ashforth and Mael 1989). Once formed, a social identity, referring to belonging as an in-group member as opposed to an out-group member, promotes positive self-relevant (self-esteem, self-enhancement) and group-relevant (commitment, loyalty) outcomes (Ashforth and Mael 1989; Tajfel 1978). Within consumer culture literature, it is well established that consumers accept products and practices that are perceived as congruent with their lifestyle and belief systems (Papaoikonomou et al. 2016). Moreover, consumers demonstrate their membership of specific groups (such as LGBTQ+ allies) through their lifestyle advocacy (Rhodes and Stewart 2016) and consumption choices (purchasing products that are endorsed by LGBTQ+ celebrities) (Papaoikonomou et al. 2016). Specific to the LGBTQ+ community, allies have been identified as vital advocates and supporters demonstrating their position within the in-group (Rhodes and Stewart 2016).
Within the context of this study, consumers who support LGBTQ+ communities and members of the LGBTQ+ subculture can be categorized as the in-group while those disapproving or ignoring LGBTQ+ are considered the out-group. In a similar vein, when presenting drag queens in a way that cares for mainstream consumers’ values/perceptions of LGBTQ+ in an ad, the ad would elicit the perception of in-group ad imagery for mainstream consumers with varying degrees of tolerance toward LGBTQ+ in comparison to one that projects a straightforward image of drag queens.
Implicit and explicit imagery in ads
How to effectively portray homosexuality in advertising has been a key topic with limited typologies. Some researchers identified the use of only queer versus mixed genders in advertising (e.g., Gong 2019), while others compared implicit versus explicit queer imagery in advertisements (Descubes et al. 2018; Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005; Um 2016). This study is in line with the latter, focusing on implicit and explicit drag queen-themed advertising claims. Implicit advertising does not clearly state its message and relies on a subtle means to deliver the message Andrews and Shimp 2018). Thus, implicit advertising allows consumers to draw their own conclusions. On the other hand, explicit advertising makes a direct statement and therefore viewers do not need to interpret the message (Andrews and Shimp 2018).
The distinctive roles between implicit and explicit imagery in advertisements have been documented in advertising and marketing literature (e.g., Descubes et al. 2018; Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005; Um 2016). Descubes et al. (2018), who examined French lesbians’ evaluation of queer advertising, showed that lesbians had greater preference for queer-explicit imagery in comparison to queer-implicit imagery ads. Moreover, feminine-appearing lesbians (out-group lesbians) reported a greater ability to generate curiosity and likeability of queer-explicit imagery advertising than masculine or butch lesbians (in-group lesbians). Oakenfull and Greenlee (2005) found that implicit imagery in mainstream marketing not only was received positively by the homosexual community but also by LGBTQ+ supporters without alienating low-tolerance consumers. Oakenfull et al. (2008) also found that the advertised message affected males and females differently and concluded that using homosexual imagery in advertisements that targeted women (who demonstrate higher tolerance towards homosexuals) exclusively was more positively received than by advertisements targeting low-tolerance or male dominated (mainstream) segments.
In the context of advertising featuring drag queens, a direct and strong claim of drag in an ad (i.e., an explicit drag-themed ad) in comparison to a roundabout depiction of drag (i.e., an implicit ad) may provoke more attention to the drag’s figure and the consumers’ perception that the ad portrays out-group values, leading to less favorable responses. On the other hand, an ad featuring a roundabout depiction of drag (i.e., an implicit ad) is less likely to bring attention to the drag presence and more likely to guide viewers’ attention to the overall ad messages. Accordingly, viewers tend to process the ad in a similar way that they examine mainstream ads, leading to the perception that the ad features in-group traits and thus positive responses (e.g., Hester and Gibson 2007).
This study investigates the effectiveness of drag queen-themed advertising in terms of mainstream consumers’ attitudes toward the advertising and the brand. Both factors have been widely adopted to capture advertising performance (Bhat et al. 1996; Um 2014). Attitude towards the ad captures a viewer’s favorable or unfavorable evaluation of the given ad; attitude toward the brand represents his/her favorable or unfavorable assessment of the focal brand that administers the ad (Bhat et al. 1996; Lutz 1985).
- Hypothesis 1.:
An implicit drag-themed ad has a greater impact on positive attitudes toward the ad (H1a) and the brand (H1b) than an explicit ad
Tolerance toward drag queens
Previous research identified various individual variables having correlations with consumer evaluations of LGBTQ+ -related marketing programs. They include demographic characteristics such as gender (Bhat et al. 1998; Oakenfull and Greenlee 2005; Oakenfull et al. 2008), and socio-psychological variables such as self-identification with the queer community (Descubes et al. 2018), social dominance orientation (El Hazzouri et al. 2019), tolerance toward homosexuality (Um 2016) and attitudes toward homosexuality (Åkestam et al. 2017). Perhaps due to the advantage of the effective market segmenting, gender, more precisely the sex-binary (male and female), has been the main focus to explain their responses to LGBTQ+ -featured ads. However, such approach is problematic as it excludes those of other gender categories (e.g., intersex, transgender, genderfluid) (Eisend 2019; Kates 1999). Considering diversity of gender among mainstream consumers, we turn to one’s psychological belief system that would work in LGBTQ+ -themed advertising effects, which is tolerance toward drag queens.
Tolerance, as a psychological belief variable, refers to the degree to which an individual “permits as something not wholly approved of” (Black quoted in Stevenson 1988: 501). To enhance tolerance leads to positive changes and acceptance (Stevenson 1988; Vicdan and Firat 2015) that high tolerance is associated with being open, other-focused, and universalistic, while low tolerance relates to be self-focused, controlled, and intolerant to ambiguity (Um 2014). In this study, tolerance of drag queens is defined as the extent to which a consumer considers drag a moral and endurable lifestyle.
In line with the notion of social identity theory, the positive associations between tolerance levels and evaluations of queer-themed advertising are likely. Bhat et al. (1998) showed that the overall response to the advertisement was based upon tolerance levels, but that the attitude towards the brand was more muted or less negatively perceived by low-tolerant people. Um (2014) also verified Hester and Gibson (2007) that heterosexual consumers with high tolerance exhibit more favorable attitudes toward the ad and the focal brand, and greater purchase intention in comparison to those with low tolerance. Accordingly, an individual’s level of tolerance toward LGBTQ+ captures the different levels of acceptance s/he has toward LGBTQ+ lifestyles.
When exposed to drag queen-themed advertising, consumers with high tolerance of drag queens (i.e., an in-group) would perceive the ad as being in line with basic human values of importance; thus, the ad would evoke in-group-based identities. As a result, more favorable in-group comparisons would occur. Those with low tolerance, contrarily, perceive a drag queen depicted in an ad as an out-group member, eliciting out-group-based identities. The out-group comparisons likely hinder them from favorably reacting to the ad and the brand.
- Hypothesis 2.:
The higher consumers’ tolerance of drag queens the more favorable their attitudes toward the ad (H2a) and the brand (H2b)
Furthermore, we presume that consumers’ tolerance toward drag queen would work together with different portrayals of drag queen-themed advertising in determining their responses. Those with high tolerance of drag queens would feel less cognitive dissonance when processing either an explicit or implicit imagery of drag queens in an ad and thus, for them, the positive effect of explicit (vs. implicit) ad imagery on attitude would be enhanced. Conversely, those with low tolerance would experience cognitive dissonance when reviewing an explicit (vs. implicit) ad imagery. Then, they would likely discount the ad and brand in attempting to alleviate such dissonance. Therefore, consumer tolerance of drag may interact with a way that an ad renders a drag queen such that high tolerance can enhance the positive effect of explicit drag queen-themed imagery on attitude while low tolerance may lessen such effect.
- Hypothesis 3.:
There is an interaction effect between consumer tolerance of drag and the type of drag-themed ad such that, compared to implicit ad imagery, the effects of explicit ad imagery on attitudes toward the ad (H3a) and the brand (H3b) become stronger for those with a high tolerance
Lastly, regarding the role of attitude toward the ad, this study posits that ad attitude would mediate the interactive effects of ad type and tolerance on brand attitude. As an ultimate performance indicator, attitude toward the brand derives from an individual’s cumulative evaluation of the brand’s marketing programs, such as advertising. Additionally, the individual’s cognitive evaluation of its advertising is formed based on how s/he receives the brand’s implementation of the advertising. Therefore, it is posited that consumers’ perceptions concerning drag-themed advertising mediate the influence that the type of ad imagery and their tolerance toward LGBTQ+ have on attitudes toward the focal brand.
- Hypothesis 4.:
Ad attitude mediates the interactive effects of drag queen-themed ad imagery and tolerance on brand attitude
Figure 1 presents a conceptual model of drag queen-themed advertising imagery for mainstream beauty brand’s communication marketing.