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The Danger Of Humour In Advertising - How Pride In London Managed To Cause Offence, Even With The Best Intentions

05/07/2017 14:00 BST | Updated 05/07/2017 14:00 BST
Andrew Chin via Getty Images

You may have already seen the furore in the London and national press about this year's advertising campaign for Pride in London and their choice of words and themes for the entire campaign. On Friday, when the big LGBT news on everybody's lips should have been marriage equality in Germany, what we instead focused on was a missed mark from the comms team at Pride in London.

Before we start, this article is not a criticism of Pride in London. They do great work and mostly on a volunteer basis. I know some of the people behind it, and they do the work of angels producing a massive event that has nearly one million people attend.

So what happened? Pride in London produced a series of ads that have been put in poster form around central London on digital boards and transport around London. So far so good. The reason for the outcry? Here is a sample of four of the adverts:

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The advert on the right caused instant outrage. There are two factors at play here. Firstly, for a long time many in the LGBT community have sought to educate people, particularly through Stonewall's and Diversity Role Models' efforts in schools, that the use of the term 'gay' as a derogatory term is simply homophobic. These various campaigns are working with both pupils and educators. Secondly, we know that minorities have sought to reclaim insults so as to neutralise their power, for example how the LGBT community reclaimed the insult 'queer'. Where the Pride in London campaign misjudged was that, in cases where words are reclaimed, they are done so as an expression of power and a celebration of difference. The ad on the right still uses 'gay' as an insult. The intention may have been to subvert, but the effect has been to strengthen a slur by accepting its power to insult.

The second issue for many has been the campaign's focus on allies. Everyone should acknowledge the power of allies in the struggle for LGBT equality, whether from the earliest days 50 years ago of decriminalisation up to prime ministers' messages for the Pride season. Anyone who disagrees needs to read their history books. And yet, and yet. If the focus is too strongly on allies, then the core audience of the LGBT community can feel overlooked, which is not without its irony for Pride. Any pride event should be about celebrating the LGBT community and embracing that community for what it is. Looking at the Pride in London ads, there is an overfocus on how cool it is for a straight person to have a gay friend or how good it is to know someone who is gay.

Some might argue that this is merely an extension of the 'corporatisation' of Pride, where we now see major corporate sponsors taking prime positions in the parade. I am not one of those people who view corporate involvement negatively. My first London pride march was in 1987. It was small enough that the concert at the end was in Jubilee Park on the South Bank (look it up, it's tiny) and it was still at the stage where the police were not your friend, and parents would turn their children away to avoid seeing such moral degeneracy. Times have changed and we should be proud of our efforts. If nothing else, corporate sponsorship allows Pride in London to stay as a huge free event in the centre of our capital.

Pride in London has become very family-friendly, and last year we saw lots of parents who had specifically brought their children along to enjoy the party atmosphere of a pride march. In fact, Emerald's Pride ad for 2017 focusses on a father and son, using a picture taken at last year's Pride in London:

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It is a delicate balance to add humour into a campaign, particularly one focussed on the LGBT community, without causing offence. At least, without causing too much offence - we ran a home insurance campaign with a picture of a gay couple at home featuring the slogan - "Insurance that covers you from top to bottom". Most people loved the campaign but we did have a few social media posts from less happy members of the community. The problem with the Pride in London campaign is that my test of reactions from family and friends showed 100% dislike of the adverts, so the balance was not there right at the start.

Any good politician will tell you not to take your core audience for granted. This is what seems to have happened with Pride in London this year. Of course Pride has evolved, but it must not end up with the LGBT community feeling marginalised at their own event. The feedback from friends of mine used words such as 'clumsy', 'no ill intent', 'well intentioned but missed the mark'. Nevertheless, the campaign was a mistake and an expensive one at that. While we can be full of admiration for the huge team of volunteers, I am curious how this campaign managed to get through the Pride in London management without anyone pointing out the risk. Pride in London has given a full and unreserved apology for the adverts. Let us hope that the lesson has been learnt, both in terms of the content of future campaigns and the internal approval process.

I wish you all the best for the Pride season, wherever you are. Be safe, be proud, and be inclusive!