‘It's a Sin’ has made Channel 4 and television history by proving LGBT+ content is not just for LGBT+ audiences. Commercial director at Outvertising and volunteer for the WFA's Global Diversity Task Force, Jerry Daykin reflects on the show's success, and why 'It's a Sin' for brands not to follow its lead on inclusion.
Russel T Davies and the Channel 4 team have another hit under their belt. Not just any hit, with over 6.5m streams and counting ‘It’s a Sin’ is All4’s biggest ever instant box set. In fact, it's already their third most-streamed series full stop - one might guess the equally soggy bottoms of Great British Bake Off are now its only competition.
It’s a show that seems to have captivated a wide slice of the population with its rich storytelling, well-realised characters, and nostalgic relish. It has managed to do this despite unashamedly focussing in on the lives and misadventures of a highly liberated group of young LGBT+ folks - and with a narrative that doesn’t skirt around the atrocities of the AIDS crisis or the emotional rollercoaster that entails.
As a gay man myself, my social echo chamber is a little skewed, but the buzz around the show has been inescapable this fortnight with over 80 million #ItsASin hashtag impressions. Where the show has perhaps most triumphed is in revealing the universal appeal of inclusive storytelling, not just to the communities represented within it but to a much broader mass audience too.
This kind of LGBT+ content was unthinkable on TV in Thatcher’s era when it’s set, and it took until the very end of the 90s for its relatively tame precursor ‘Queer as Folk’ to make it onto our screens. Channel 4 was bold in showing the series back then too, and for me, it was one of the first glimpses I saw of the possibility of a positive gay lifestyle. Certainly, such a life was still erased in schools by Section 28, and not part of my own evangelical Christian upbringing.
At the 20th Anniversary of Queer as Folk, Davies told the sad story of a brand that called up Channel 4 after seeing the first episode and asked for its adverts to be immediately removed. While perhaps an unlikely choice, this time around It’s A Sin finds itself sponsored by used car network Arnold Clark. Its team, on hearing feedback after the first episode, managed to update their idents so that each car shown was waving a progressive pride flag out the window by the time the second aired. How times have changed.
Previous Channel 4 research found that only 3% of adverts feature people from the LGBT+ community, whereas estimates of the actual population not identifying as 'totally straight' range from 6% to 10% to even over 50% amongst younger cohorts.
If you care about making the world a better place then positive representation, of all kinds, is a small role you can play.
Ensure your communications positively reflect the breadth of modern society and steer well clear of the negative stereotypes that many old adverts fall into. In a small way, advertising shapes people’s views and expectations of the world around them, and we can break taboos in doing so. Some brands will take it even further into purpose-driven campaigns, charity partnerships and lobbying, but none have an excuse not to get to at least basic equality.
There’s arguably an even bigger benefit that marketers can bring to the LGBT+ community and that is funding the content that tells their stories and champions their causes.
Every advertiser appearing in the It’s A Sin ad breaks is a small hero in my books, as is everyone sponsoring LGBT+ editorial in mainstream publications, and especially those going the extra mile to ensure their adverts run in and support dedicated titles. Our advertising funds the content around it and we can make choices through deliberate partnerships and programmatic approaches to fund diverse opinions within that.
It’s not just good for the world though, it’s also good for business. I’ve seen countless research points about how progressive advertising outperforms when delivered to broad audiences, and that’s before you dig into the direct commercial opportunity that appealing to under-served growth audiences can bring you. It makes business sense and it makes ethical sense, even before you layer on any higher causes or purpose.
Getting started isn’t always easy though, and there are well-meaning brands who have upset more people than they’ve served with their clumsy attempts at inclusion. The Outvertising guide, and the range of events the team puts on themselves or in partnership with other organisations, is a great place to turn to for advice, inspiration and a few watch-outs. If you’d like to explore an ongoing partnership or reach out for individual support, we’d love to hear from you. Many businesses also have their own internal employee ERGs that can be a great sounding board, and I’ve found that working directly with LGBT+ media owners can be a great way of shaping content you know will positively represent the audience.
At the WFA, we’re putting the finishing touches to a step by step guide to the creative process, which highlights some of the key questions we need to be asking and the points at which bias creeps in. There’s no use expecting diverse and representative output if our insights aren’t, our teams aren’t, our briefs aren’t, our production processes aren’t, and our media plans aren’t representative in some ways themselves. Whilst some of those can be time-consuming and daunting to fix on each there’s an easy first step to take.
We’re far from perfect at GSK but at the end of last year we made the commitment to train all of our marketers in this space, to continue to expand our media and content partnerships, and to be an active contributor to the wider industry as we all look to drive this change - I can assure you there has never been a better time.
I’m not saying that every advert we all produce now suddenly needs to be LGBT+ inclusive, but if you look across the body of work you’ve created recently and none of it is then perhaps it’s time to do better. The same goes for other areas of diversity like race, class, age, and ability.
If you’re wondering where to start the simplest answer is with a conversation or with a brief. Tell your agency, tell your clients, tell your partners this is something you care about, and then ask together what can you build into your future plans to help you deliver on it. You’ll be amazed at what’s possible if you think to try.
Jerry Daykin is EMEA senior media director at GSK Consumer Healthcare. He also volunteers as commercial director at Outvertising and as co-lead of the WFA Diversity Task Force. He’s All In for the 10th March UK Advertising Census.