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Insights in health & wellness branding
25 June

All in the Modern Family

That 1994 spot

10 years after the landmark 1984 spot for Apple Computers, Ikea launched the first commercial in the U.S. that featured a gay couple. This quaint spot about newlyweds choosing a dining-room table enraged The American Family Association,* who called for boycotts of Ikea stores, one of which was the target of a bomb threat.

This may not seem like a groundbreaking spot, but at the time, it was.

Says Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at the Pace University Lubin School of Business:

For the longest time, ads presented the typical American household as Caucasian, heterosexual, two children and two cars in the driveway…There’s a large portion [of the world] that is nothing like the ‘Father Knows Best’ Americana image. It’s taken the advertising community, and particularly their clients, a long time to come to grips with that. They’re risk averse.

Over two decades later…

Fast forward to the 2010s and big brands like Expedia, Amazon, Honey Maid, Cheerios, and Master Card all have ads featuring gay couples, some with families. As part of the Tylenol “HowWeFamily” campaign, the brand features a host of different couples, including a teenage lesbian couple and two gay dads.

With entries from Infiniti USA, Tide, State Farm, Humira, and Calvin Klein, multi-racial couples and families in commercials are also starting to grace our commercial breaks.

Bye-bye bumbling dad

Along with the portrayal of nontraditional families, there’s also less gender stereotyping, such as fewer representations of the bumbling dad.

The “Dadvertising” trend was first noticed during the 2015 Super Bowl, when many warm, fuzzy commercials featured dads. Prior to that time, dads on TV were generally clueless about things like changing diapers or separating laundry—Mom usually stepped in and saved the domestic day, with an expert opinion on how to get whiter whites.

But really, though

Sure, much of what we see on television is downright fake. But these more modern representations of families are actually a truer reflection of present society.

Whether defined by LGBT parents, nonmarried parents, or stay-at-home dads, two out of five households today do not fit the traditional model, cites a report from YouGov and BabyCenter.The Gallup Poll’s results in 2017 showed at least one in 10 Americans are married to someone of the same sex. And in 2015, the Pew Research Center reported at least one in six newlyweds is married to a person of a different race.

It therefore only makes sense that ads would reflect these new realities.

More work to be done

While we’re seeing more communications that represent a broader spectrum of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, much work remains to be done before advertising in the US is truly honest about what families look like.

Apart from making our hearts grow two sizes bigger, this honesty could really pay off.

According to a 2016 study from online market research firm YouGov and BabyCenter, 80% of parents like seeing diverse families in advertising. And 41% of millennial parents were more likely to purchase products that include more diverse families in their ads.

Says Fiona Carter, chief brand officer of AT&T:

I think there’s been a seismic shift in people demanding that the media they’re consuming truly portray their lives. I would say there’s been a corresponding intentionality in our company to ensure that we’re doing right by our customers—portraying diversity—and letting our customers then see their own stories in the advertising we do.

The Coors Light Syndrome

Advises owner of Brown and Browner Advertising, Derek Walker:

It’s better to have an authentic story than forced diversity. For years, some of us have called it the Coors Light Syndrome. They throw in one black person, mainly female, who is dark enough to be black, but light enough to be Hispanic.

In other words, diversity in advertising shouldn’t resort to insincere tokenism. Rather, ads should be honest about society. Walker adds, “The assumption is that white people will only buy from a white message and black folks from a black message, but I’m not sure that’s true.”

With all this in mind, suggesting that a main character in a mainstream commercial be non-Caucasian is not insane.

Which brings me to my last topic.

Expect backlash

After receiving complaints from customers who did not agree that gay families are “wholesome,” Honey Maid execs enlisted artists to turn negative comments, which were printed on paper, into a sculpture that spelled the word, “Love.” Honey Maid also created a video about the experience, in which it said that the positive messages it received outnumbered the negative ones by 1000%.

Cheerios and Old Navy also doubled down after they got flack for their portrayals of nontraditional families. These efforts also paid dividends, garnering lots of ancillary publicity for their campaigns.

What can you, as marketers, do when you need to cast a family? Stand by your choice to be inclusive and you too could be rewarded.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll see why 2024 won’t be like 1994.


*This same group would boycott Target over their trans-friendly bathroom policy in 2016.

Caren Spigland About the Author

Caren Spigland is an Associate Creative Director of Copy at Abelson Taylor. Prior to AT, she worked at shops like JWT, where she wrote her 1st Super Bowl spot, and BBDO, where she “wrote” her 1st no-copy ad and assisted in the death of the Wrigley’s Gum jingle.