Customers Are OK With Transgender People In Advertising, But Don’t Know What It Means

This ad from Marriott’s #LoveTravels campaign featuring fashion model Geena Rocero was used in the study of trans-inclusive advertising. CREDIT: MARRIOTT
This ad from Marriott’s #LoveTravels campaign featuring fashion model Geena Rocero was used in the study of trans-inclusive advertising. CREDIT: MARRIOTT

A new study finds that most people actually approve of seeing transgender people in advertising, but they don’t actually understand what “transgender” means as much as they think they do.

According to research from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence (JWT) and Out Professionals in Advertising and Media, when people are shown ads that feature transgender people, 74 percent agreed that it simply reflects the reality of today’s society. Some 65 percent agree that brands that choose to include trans people in their ads are brave and progressive. Approval unsurprisingly tended to be higher among women, Millennials, liberals, and non-heterosexuals.

Mark Truss, JWT Global Director of Brand Intelligence, told ThinkProgress he was surprised to see that 23 percent of people actually reported seeing trans people in advertisements. “While we know more and more companies have been featuring transgender people in ads, to date it’s only been a handful of companies.” Considering the study found that people are less likely to remember seeing a trans-inclusive ad compared to an ad featuring a same-sex couple, the number of people who have actually seen such an ad might even be higher.

But the study also found that it is a time of transition for the public’s perception, with many respondents acknowledging caveats to their views. For example, 70 percent suggested that other people might prefer not to see transgender people in ads, with 49 percent admitting they don’t know why brands feel the need to show trans people in their ads. In fact, 57 percent agreed that it might just be to get publicity, with 48 percent wondering if it’s just to be controversial.


When shown ads from Marriott and Clean & Clear that featured transgender people, respondents tended to like similar ads that did not include trans people a bit more, but they felt the trans-inclusive ads exhibited far more bravery. For example, this ad featuring author, activist, and reality show star Jazz Jennings was still liked by 71 percent of viewers, but not as much as a similar ad from a teen who was not apparently transgender (83 percent):

Those who didn’t like the ad had some negative reactions about trans identities, describing them as “alternate lifestyles,” “ too political,” and “too mature for young audiences.” There were also specific concerns about Jennings’ age, such as one respondent who said, “I don’t believe a pre-teen knows if they are a transgender person” or another who complained, “We are using children to promote a LGBT agenda, and that is not right.”

But, Truss assured, “while they might have some very negative reactions, they are certainly in the minority in their opinion.”

What the reactions do speak to, however, is the need for additional education about transgender identities. “In the research, a lot of people claimed to know what the term ‘transgender’ means (93 percent), though when quizzed on specifics many fewer really understand what it means,” he explained. “And only one-in-six Americans claims to personally know a transgender person — and I suspect that number is likely inflated since their understanding of transgender people is often incorrect.”

Truss believes an education campaign “could go far in helping Americans better understand the transgender community” because it will provide useful information that prevents individuals from “filling in the blanks themselves.” Previous studies have shown that “facts, truth and understanding lead to empathy, which leads to acceptance.”


This was certainly true in the recent study on the effect of canvassing about transgender issues. Researchers found a lasting effect when voters engaged in discussions that involved finding common ground between their own life experiences and what transgender people experience. In follow-up surveys, the effect was more prominent when they were reminded of the definition of of “transgender.”

Likewise, Truss believes the effect of trans people in corporate ads would likely translate easily to political ads. In campaigns like the fight to defend the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance or to challenge North Carolina’s HB2, he thinks “it could have a positive effect, helping educate people about transgender people. In fact, when we look back at the type of ads being run in the corporate world that feature transgender people, the majority of them are about the story of a transgender person, educating people about them.” Already, activists resisting the anti-transgender backlash are embracing trans visibility in their campaigns. For example, this video from Moovz, an LGBT social network, features actual transgender people demonstrating how laws like North Carolina’s interfere with their ability to use the restroom:

FacebookEdit descriptionwww.facebook.comThough the research is still growing, the available evidence increasingly shows that the public is receptive to transgender people and learning about their lives.