Holding Brands Accountable to Show Up for POC and Queer Communities
In recent years, I've observed an incredible shift. Millennials and Gen Z aren't falling for the same traditional advertising formulas. We crave something deeper and more meaningful—a truer reflection of how diverse and interconnected we all really are.
For those of us in the LGBTQIA+ community, the conversation about gender, our identities, and outside perception is one we've been having for a long time. Now we are seeing things grow and take shape from the seeds we've been planting over the past decade. As these conversations occur and the demand for diversity continues to rise, brands are finally starting to catch on. However, there's still a long way to go.
Advertising comes with a deep responsibility that hasn't really been considered by previous generations. Brands have played a pivotal role in shaping the patriarchal gaze we are used to seeing in everything across advertising, and most marketing strategies are still catering to a cis-heteronormative white audience.
Truthfully, it has been very alienating to the Queer community for many years. Simply put, the images don't reflect us. When marketing strategies leave behind massive parts of the population, it perpetuates the lack of representation we have seen for decades, which leads to lack of visibility, being hired, or being seen as valuable—and that is damaging across the board.
So what can brands do to stop failing POC and Queer communities? I say this again and again: Hire more Black and Brown people, hire more Queer people, and truly listen to their input and what their communities need. Invest in their small brands and businesses, and you will see the right corporate changes start to take shape. Set up systems to protect those employees and help guide them. Don't just hire people for token or entry-level positions, either—give them a seat at the table where the decisions actually get made. Give them a position of power.
I want to see brands supporting 2SLGBTQ+ and POC artists year-round! It's obvious that slapping a rainbow on a brand logo during Pride Month or relaying a generic platitude like "Love Is Love'' is not actually saying much. It's imperative we continue having dialogues about how we can show up in a bigger way for POC and Queer communities, 365 days a year. Learn from one another in order to create a new company culture, so it will become second nature and we will no longer need to have these conversations in the future.
Brands that give back in real ways are the future. I love the concept of "sustainable giving," shifting the capital into the hands of people who have generationally been denied that access and basic need for survival. Setting up programs that directly give back to these communities will be key to success.
Not just partnering with someone who feels "safe" for a white, middle-America audience either. Do the research and find small foundations and nonprofit organizations serving local QTPOC communities, those which are the most vulnerable and could use support. There is enough money to go around, and redistributing wealth is one way brands can have a bigger impact—and it will feel good doing it.
I commend the brands doing actionable, sustainable work. One being L.A.-based fashion brand Phlemuns, a forefront leader in the community. Nothing is mass produced, and designer James Flemons creates works of art for the people, offered at various price points so everyone can participate. Ben & Jerry's, famously, is another brand that does the right thing. They have an opinion and a stance, and not only when it's relevant.
Several beauty companies are radiating inclusive beauty in a multitude of ways. Fenty is the real deal when it comes to non-performative allyship across all spectrums. They are making an impact visually through their advertising, in their casting, in the ethos the brand reflects, and via their global advocacy work through the Clara Lionel Foundation (CLF). I trust my name in the hands of Rihanna.
Beyond the images they are creating, Benefit Cosmetics is so admirable for the work they do on the ground level. Every April, Benefit celebrates Bold is Beautiful by donating 100 percent of all brow bar proceeds to charities that support and empower women, including Dress for Success, Girls Inc., Habitat for Humanity, Breast Friends, Step Up, Planned Parenthood and more.
In 2018, Benefit entrusted me with their Bold Is Beautiful campaign, sending me to 23 countries to capture the stories of 58 women across 70 days. It wasn't about selling anything, but about bringing visibility to these organizations, and capturing the stories of the people they support all around the world.
From Australia to Turkey to Thailand to Australia to Dubai, I got to celebrate the strengths of so many amazing women, capturing their light and the best, boldest versions of themselves. During that time, Benefit really embedded me within the company, and I got to see all the cool stuff they are doing with their bottom line. They aren't doing the work to be saviors about it. They do it because it's the true ethos of the company, and it energizes the people that work there, too.
The Bold Is Beautiful campaign was such a special journey for me, and that's all I can hope for. I can shoot denim jeans and beauty products all day long, but getting to the root of people's stories is my biggest strength as an artist and it's always incredible when brands trust me to do so.
I believe young filmmakers like myself possess the power to shift that narrative in advertising. What I've noticed is that brands are very insular, and through their advertising they can limit their perspective to what's happening in this big world. When brands broaden their bubble and partner with artists like myself, that means they're thinking more in-depth about who is creating the images and what they have to say.
I love it when brands involve me in the initial concept stages; it allows me to give input on behalf of the community. Because to be Queer is to question all of these societal expectations and to intristically be unpacking and reshaping those narratives. It's a much deeper task at hand, and while brands haven't been perfect in the past, I'd like to encourage them to continue opening seats at the table to our vibrant and incredible community.
And for POC and Queer communities, it's imperative that we continue having year-round dialogues about how we can show up in a bigger way and incorporate that into the images we are creating and putting into the world.
Sephora did an amazing job with the "We Belong to Something Beautiful" campaign. It was less about showing people applying products, and more about sharing stories—which I feel is the future of advertising and a lane I'm trying to carve out with my work. If it doesn't have a story or depth, we don't want it.
In a world where beauty is hyper-focused to be one idea—one propped up by the male gaze—Sephora took a risk by presenting an alternative version of what we're conditioned to think of as beautiful. They did a phenomenal job in the casting, seeing beyond the binaries. It allowed me to be super curious and draw out beautiful stories from the subjects, which is at the heart of what I do.