Drag time

Queens of the ad age

In recent years we have seen a wave of new, brightly made-up faces fronting campaigns for everything from tiny hatchbacks to giant drinks brands. Drag queens have been taking over our screens, starring in TV, movies and viral social content – plus the ads running between it all. This goes beyond a marketing trend and points to a wider generational-shift, the kind that is redefining mainstream culture in the 21st century.

A multitude of progressive brands have cast queens in marketing campaigns. Some of these are small but impactful digital activations, such as IKEA’s ‘Dräg’ social campaign, where performers were challenged to create outfits from the store’s products, Project Runway style. Others like Toyota’s ‘Go Your Own Way’ series to relaunch the Aygo, have enjoyed a sizeable media investment across TVC, programmatic, social and OOH. The campaign saw four queens given the freedom to direct and star in their own ad, with the Aygo playing supporting actor and stage-set. Meanwhile in the alcohol arena, Smirnoff unleashed a drag-filled OOH campaign, rolled-out to cities worldwide.

But how has a subculture that even five years ago would have been considered way too left-field, perhaps even controversial, made into ATL advertising for multi-billion-dollar companies?

The answer lies , in part, to blockbuster TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race. Now in its 10th series, the reality show, which for the uninitiated is best summarised as America’s Next Top Model for drag queens, has won the hearts of viewers all over the world with its signature blend of high-camp, high-drama and surprisingly high production values. Crucially, the show’s appeal has transcended its original LGBTQ fanbase, with a highly-engaged audience of straight people calling RPDR unmissable television. This is best-evidenced by the show moving from North American LGBTQ television network LOGO to the streaming behemoth that is Netflix, where new episodes are aired and the 10 year back-catalogue is available to binge.

This is a marker of the core social values of the millennials and Gen-Z’ers that have helped make RPDR a global smash hit. It is well-documented that millennials are the most-supportive ever generation of LGBTQ rights, but are also the gayest generation ever: 14.5% of Americans aged 18-34 identify as something other than straight. These stats are what is driving the growing trend of cause-led business models and marketing campaigns like the drag-tastic cohort currently filling the pages of AdWeek. The results of a study from Berkeley University showed that “more than nine out of ten millennials would switch brands to one associated with a cause” – far from a surprising result.

Consumer attitudes and behaviours like this are what makes championing LGBT subculture appealing, but also a potential pitfall. Often campaigns like these are tied to a charitable cause – for fear of criticism that the brand is ‘piggybacking’, or even exploiting, the community. A common way of securing caring credentials is teaming up with an LGBTQ charity or by sponsoring a local Pride parade, which can be built out into a campaign all of its own. Last year American Eagle Outfitters spun out their partnership with It Gets Better into a float in New York City’s mammoth Pride procession, plus a wide-reaching digital campaign.

Even this however, is not without its critics. Some left-leaning members of London’s LGBTQ community lead a movement to boycott Pride, for fear it has become too commercialised. While many think it is a good thing that even companies as mainstream as Tesco and Barclays have embraced the pride movement, with both sending flagship floats filled with loud-and-proud LGBTQ employees to London’s parade, others do not agree. Taking on the task of finding fault, a growing faction “call out” brands such as these for a number of perceived infractions.

This should be a reminder to brands that while cause-based advertising can be admirable, it can also be a little ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’. Sadly, boycotts of brands from the religious right are still all too common in 2018. The alt-right is quick to accuse brands like Toyota, IKEA and Smirnoff as ‘virtue signalling’ – the practise of flaunting ones progressive values as social currency, an accusation often hurled at millennials in the social media sphere.

While elements of this can be off-putting for CMOs looking to reach out to a minority group, by and large the LGBTQ community continue to welcome the attention that mega-brands are paying them against the backdrop of the Western world’s ongoing culture wars.

As a community, we welcome not only the attention and validation, but also the support of the performers that make up the heart-and-soul of LGBTQ scenes all over the world. After all, the money that a drag artist can make from one big brand campaign can be more than what they would make in sixth months of nightclub gigs – showing how important it is to understand that the ‘Pink Pound’ can flow both ways.

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