A Vision for Enlightened Bisexual Portrayals in Advertising Creative

It's a tightrope walk that's tough to master

In the course of my work, as I mull LGBTQ+ representation in the creation of advertising, I realized I've seen campaigns featuring trans, gay and lesbian people, but either...

1. No commercials featuring bi people, or...
2. Hundreds of commercials featuring bi people.

No one, IRL or fictional, has a sexual identity defined by any one act. No one kiss or handhold or more intimate interaction defines sexual orientation. Through a personal, intricate and ever-changing process, people decide their own orientation. Society gives some shortcuts to communicate these identities. And on the flip side of those communications, we're culturally trained to make certain assumptions based on people's behaviors.

Because of those cultural norms, as obvious as it might have felt for my entire life, I have committed a big offense of erasure: I assumed every man I've ever seen kissing a woman on screen was straight, and every man I've seen kissing a man on screen was gay. I disclose this information at the risk that I'll be seen as part of a problem, for making oversimplified assumptions about complicated matters of identity. But because part of doing the work of DEI is looking inward at your own biases, I'm admitting that yes, I am part of the problem.

The gap of representation in advertising is two-sided. It resides in both the assumptions of the audience, and the lack of cultural resources to express bisexual identity in ads. An LGBTQ+ activist friend told me just yesterday—unprompted—that she and a number of informed colleagues just had a very involved conversation, with "baffled curiosity about how an advert featuring bisexuals could play out in a 30-second spot."

More than half of LGBT Americans, 57 percent, indicate they are bisexual. That percentage translates to 4 percent of all U.S. adults. Yet we have so few conversations about bisexual representation in advertising—whether it's the industry or its product. The most high-profile bi-cultural moment is Bi Visibility Day, which makes the statement: See Us. But where is the cultural coding to express bisexuality in short-form storytelling made by a well-intentioned brand that wants to say, "We DO see you?"

Suddenly, bisexual lighting became a thing, but is it well-known enough to convey representation to mass audiences? Also, how much can we rely on that one filmmaking technique? The hilarity of this Reductress meme that reveals another problem: the answer won't be in showing that people love something traditionally masculine AND something traditionally feminine.

Because we're in the business of communication, and increasingly fixing our inclusion biases, we must ask: What elements of bisexual representation in advertising would differ from more generalized LBTQ+ discussions? And what is the ideal for respectful and engaging bi representation in commercial creative? 

When bisexual people deserve to be seen, what's the right way for our business to let them know they are? Some notions from industry friends and colleagues...

"There are simple, clever ways to approach the bi experience beyond just trying to solve it through character engagement and dialogue. Like, why wouldn't Burger King create a 'Have it Both Ways' campaign? Twix could come out with a bi-pack of different flavors. The Brawny Man could come out as the bi king we know he is. As an out-and-proud member of the bi community for over 20 years, the first step is to have more of these conversations which include us. Make us feel seen and heard by seeing and hearing us. Hire us bi folks to come up with the work, cast us, integrate us into the fabric of the creative and strategic process."
—Kindra Meyer (she/her), freelance executive creative director ("Bi Boss Barbie")

"I know so many folks that identify as bi or pan—but how do we represent them in ads where even clearly same-sex couples read as friends to audiences? I think you'd have to go big and write a concept speaking directly about a bisexual character. Or let the character speak to the complexity. If we want inclusion to go beyond the superficial we need ads to go there, too."
—Ryan Murphy (he/they), VP creative director, M Booth

"I think the lack of conversation around bisexual/pansexual representation boils down to society's unhealthy obsession with binaries and an aversion to nuance. People like things to belong to one category or the other, to be easily identifiable. Bi/pan folks exist in that inconvenient grey area. So we have to reframe the perception that the queer community is a monolith, [similar to the] work we've done for years in the multicultural marketing space. We have to redefine our own perceptions, too. For any same-sex couple shown in an ad, not automatically assuming they're both Kinsey 6s."
—Diego Andrade (he/him), SVP, ECD, Orci

"Thanks to representation shortages, we've become experts in spotting representation when it does exist or creating our own; there's no need to beat us over the head with it. Casting bisexual public figures—as themselves, not characters—is a great start because we know and love our bicons. Leaning into symbols of bisexuality is another great option. Signifiers of bisexuality can range from more mainstream ones like the bi flag to more niche creations of online communities like finger guns, an inability to sit in chairs correctly, and lemon bars. Most importantly, hire bisexual people to help get it right."
—Sam Laubach (they/he), strategy analyst, Siegel+Gale

"Bisexuality feels like one of the least represented portions of the LGBTQ+ community in all of media. And when that representation is used, we see it falling prey to a variety of villainous or promiscuous tropes. But as advertisers, we can help push a more positive discourse forward with authentic storytelling that neither exaggerates nor limits this part of our congregation. Find those authentic voices and let their natural stories unfold. Don't force untruths to make these people fit within your narratives. Instead, let their lives fulfill the story on their own."
—Paul LaFleur (he/him), design director, Hook

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Graham Nolan
Graham Nolan (he/him) is co-chair, storytelling and partnerships, at Do the WeRQ.

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