Inclusive advertising that doesn't pander

WE LOVE OUR SAME-SEX CLIENTS! SO MUCH! WE LOOOOOVE THEM!! COME GIVE US MONEY!!! By: Charlie NguyenCC BY 2.0
I work in Iowa, where same-sex marriage is legal (whoot for equality), and I was recently asked by my workplace to put together a brochure about the wedding rental facilities we have available — pavilions, parks, that sort of thing.

I am already planning on including a "We rent to everyone, regardless of who you're in love with " in the FAQs, but I want to make a bigger statement with the actual design.

On the flip side, I don't want to seem like I'm blatantly pandering for the sake of it — I guess in my mind, I just feel like it's somewhat exploitative to include a picture of two brides or two grooms just because "See how different they are? AND WE DON'T EVEN CARE!!"

I've spoken to a number of my friends about this, both straight and non-, and it seems like everyone has their own opinion on things. I've spoken to queer couples who won't even consider a vendor unless they specifically show same-sex couples in their materials, and others have said that they feel pandered to and would be uncomfortable renting from a vendor who purposely includes same-sex couples as a means of showing how "diverse" their clientele is.

What do you think? What's the best way to advertise in a non-gender specific way? How would you do it?

As you point out, there's no right answer to this question, and I certainly can't speak for an entire community or make blanket statements for what will feel like pandering vs what feels inclusive. I think the best non-definitive response I can give here is to share some of my own thoughts as a business owner who caters to LGBT clientele, and let you make your own decisions about what might work best for you.

So first, a few obvious points that you've already considered:

  • Avoid all gendered language like "brides and grooms" or "his and hers"
  • Language like "partners" instead of "couples" can be a subtle cultural indicator
  • Instead of showing people, show non-peopled imagery like decor, food, or rings
  • Include a small line of text emphasizing your organization's inclusivity — this is a great way to voice that you accommodate not just LGBT couples, but also those with disabilities, or those with other unique needs.
  • Don't make the mistake of over representing LGBT couples (even in states with marriage equality, the vast majority of couples planning weddings are het)

My goal is to make my sites feel inclusive, without feeling like I'm specifically calling out or highlighting same-sex couples as anything other than just another couple. We encourage folks to identify however they like (meaning that some of our same-sex weddings have titles like "Jane and Jill's backyard BBQ lesbian wedding" — because that's how the couple identified it), but we also feature a ton of same-sex weddings from couples who don't self-identify as same-sex, with titles like "Jane and Jill's backyard BBQ wedding." If you look at the pictures or read the post, obviously it's a same-sex wedding… but the same-sex-ness is not the point, any more than it's the point that the wedding happened in NYC, Iowa City, or Seattle. It's a wedding that's awesome that happens to also be same-sex. On Offbeat Families and Home & Life, we feature tons of content written by LGBT writers that has nothing to do with their LGBT identity.

I also allow the breadth of my content to speak for itself — I don't usually promote Offbeat Bride as LGBT-friendly, because anyone who reads the site for even a week can see that about 20% of our content is LGBT, roughly the same percentage of our readership that identifies that way. For me, it's important to have my product (aka our posts) reflect our readership.

As a resident of Washington State, it was super interesting for me to see how wedding vendors here responded to the political shift — which of course has impact for the wedding industry. I was the most impressed by vendors like Jenny Jimenez who immediately volunteered their time to support the cause. I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable when I saw vendors promoting discounts for same-sex clientele to "celebrate" the passing of Referendum 74. Discounts just felt a little too much like, "Yay, you! Now you can give me money!" I know that's not the motivation, but it's a delicate balance when identity, politics, and business intersect.

Clearly I don't have any great answers here — but I'd love to open this question up to readers: where's the line for you between advertising that feels inclusive, and advertising that feels pandering or exploitative?

  1. I think the idea to avoid pictures of couples is a great one, especially if you are renting venues. In general, the point of advertising is to promote your product. So doing that rather than promoting who uses your product is often a pretty good way to avoid pandering OR leaving someone out. While I would expect a photographer to show pictures of people like me if they would like my business, that's about their product. Unless you're using pictures of actual weddings that have happened on the property, it can come across as fake anyway. Acknowledging without shoving it in someone's face is good.

    9 agree
  2. Make sure any paperwork that couples fill out to book or get more information about your venue lists Partner 1 name and Partner 2 name rather than bride and groom name as information boxes.

    26 agree
  3. I don't see how including same-sex couples in a website or brochure is a bad thing. And I don't see a discount as a money grab any more than any other sale or discount, which are usually based on the idea that they will make more money by having more people in a smaller timeframe. Personally I'd be tickled to death about getting to save money on my wedding. What's wrong with places being clear that they are not among the other groups of places that will NOT cater to same-sex couples? I don't understand how people are supposed to communicate that this is normal until we allow them to normalize it by including us.

    5 agree
    • I get the discount thing. If a venue were offering a discount to Jewish brides, I would find it really odd. Why am I being singled out? That said, I certainly wouldn't ignore the venue, I would just ask and see what the answer was. There are reasons that totally make sense. "We feel like a lot of people think we are only willing to do WASPey weddings because thats all we have pictures of. We really want pictures of Jewish weddings happening in our venue that we can put on our website so we are offering a limited time incentive." But something like "Well we know you people will only book us if you think youre getting a good deal" is, in my mind, an equally likely answer and a business I would not want to support.

      As a minority the question of "Why am I being singled out?" is always a thorny one. Even when the result (discounts!) is good, the motivation can sometimes still be really offputting.

      6 agree
    • I'm taking a long stab in the dark here, but I think the reason for not including same-sex couples in photos might have an adverse reaction on some couples who identify as straight.

      I know in my neck of the woods, some people would clutch their pearls at the thought of using a vendor who caters to *imagine air quotes and a whispered voice* "alternative lifestyles".

      So I would guess by leaving out the photos of couples it sends the message that the company truly is inclusive of everyone by not focusing on one group or the other.

      3 agree
  4. While I think the motivation behind not showing images of people (not always couple 😉 ) makes complete sense, it's such a bummer for me. I feel like the happy, smiling photos of people are almost always the most emotionally powerful and (therefore) usually most effective from a design standpoint.

    I agree with LittleRedLupine about the images used are best from the actual venue. Stock images tend to look disingenuous to me (and most people, I think).

    9 agree
    • Reading this made me think you can do both. Show a happy crowd smiling, laughing, throwing petals at one of the venue's as a car drives off behind them with 'Just Married' scrawled across the back window. Happy people, no sexual bias indicated.

      5 agree
    • I actually hated venues that showed me too many happy couples. There was at least one venue where I tried to look it up online, and was presented with images of the couples' beaming face with no background, a few rings on roses (that filled the whole image with that rose), a centrepiece on a table that could have been at any wedding ever, and similar images. I basically discounted the whole place on the basis that they couldn't show me the actual venue on the webpage.

      6 agree
  5. I LOVED seeing explicit nods to inclusiveness: it made me feel safer about contacting vendors, reading blogs, etc, because they'd said up front that they weren't going to suddenly do/say something homophobic. It didn't feel like tokenism at all — including queer couples in your materials carries some risk of offending potential customers who object to same-sex marriage, so there's some actual commitment involved in advertising your queer-friendliness.

    In terms of the brochure: I would make sure to include a specific statement to the effect that you support marriage equality and are delighted to work with all gender combinations. Avoiding photos of couples sidesteps a whole set of diversity issues, so I do think it's good advice. But maybe you could direct people to an online gallery of events held at your location and include same-sex couples there? Whatever you do, do not use stock photography of same-sex couples who didn't get married at your location. THAT would be pandering, because it wouldn't reflect the reality of your specific experience/work.

    btw, Ariel, I think the fact that you include queer-related tags (maybe just lesbian?) helps advertise that you're queer-friendly. It's easy for a first time visitor to find queer content, whether it happens to be on the main page or not. I love that.

    14 agree
  6. Would it be uncouth of me to reference my own featured article "I am not a bride"? While it doesn't give a specific answer to the question at hand, i think it'd be helpful for someone who's looking to enter the LGBT market a little more strongly.

    1 agrees
  7. It's totally awesome that you're thinking about this!
    It's not totally clear to me if you were asked to make this brochure because gay marriage has been adopted, or if making the brochure is just a part of your work duties. If you weren't specifically asked to include gay marriage, you may want to check with your employer. Inclusive language might fly totally past your employer's radar, but photos and specific gay marriage shout-outs can be a real problem for opponents or people who feel awkward about "coming out" as supporters. It happens, even in legal states! Some venues think it's a business detractor or an uncomfortable business situation with some vendors, unfortunately.
    My advice would be to use inclusive language, but double-check before putting out an official venue welcome to gay couples if you've not been specifically instructed.

    2 agree
  8. A subtle way to show inclusiveness in the photos would be to show the rings- wither on the pillow or hands- but have them be two of the same gender.

    8 agree
  9. We were very strict with our wedding that we were only using vendors who are accepting of same sex couples, although we are heterosexual. Lots of vendors simply mentioned it on their websites and that worked for us. To be honest, I'm just not that subtle so hints in the pictures etc would probably have gone totally over my head! Obviously it's different for us but it was definitely something we looked for, so maybe a worthwhile point of view.

  10. this is an interesting question. i will just have to admit i'm a bit of a fan girl. or i'm just think being attracted to the same sex, multiple sex, ect is really interesting. like "imagine that, it is different from how i am, isn't it interesting, wow that makes the world a cooler place"

  11. There's also the option of, if you're going to include images of people, to make the images diverse and realistic. Showing a few male/female couples, as well as same-sex couples in a montage (at the venue, of course) will let people know that anyone can get married there, without it being a "gay couples only!" kind of a thing.

    BUT. I think a lot of this has to do with your clientele and your workplace. What kind of inclusionary imagery have you seen in your workplace? Have they hosted same-sex couples before, or is this something new for them? What is the demographic of your average client? These questions may be a bit more important in determining your final look and layout than what someone from another state or community things.

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