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What the American gay rights movement can teach all social marketers

What the American gay rights movement can teach all social marketers

Originally published on Change Marketing


Earlier this month, in the U.S. election, the issue of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples really got some traction. In one day, the states of Maine, Maryland and Washington joined California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont — well as the District of Columbia and two Native American tribes — in legalizing same-sex marriage. Minnesota voted down a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. And Wisconsin elected the country’s first openly-gay Senator.

All of this happened in an election in which divisive social issues drowned out economic ones. A great deal of time, money and effort was spent by political and religious interests on both sides. But somehow, gay rights came out on top. How did it happen?

First of all, if you filter out the louder voices on both sides and listen to the ground, you’ll perceive a change in the attitudes of average Americans. Last year, I wrote about what I saw as the tipping point on this issue.

But the cause actually did even better than I expected on election day. The credit for that, according to State’s Nathaniel Frank, is a result of a fundamental change in how the cause was marketed.

It actually started with a campaign against same-sex marriage in 2008:

This campaign was used to rally support for California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage. And the measure was passed. (It was later ruled unconstitutional.) The same approach, which I refer to the “fear of contamination strategy” (borrowed from obsessive-compulsive disorder terminology) was used successfully the next year in Maine to win a ballot measure against same-sex marriage.

Now, here comes the interesting part. It turns out there really is a “gay agenda”. But rather than being a mysterious plot to turn your children gay it is a loose confederation of activists and organizations who finally figured out the way to sway public opinion was not through confrontation, but by celebrating common ground.

I’ll turn it over to Slate:

How same-sex marriage ballot initiatives turned around is all about the long game. The gay rights movement succeeded using one of the most sophisticated issue campaign operations ever deployed—and by making it stick with old-fashioned commitment, hard work, and face-to-face conversations.

After the losses in Maine in 2009 and California a year earlier, LGBT advocates knew they needed to craft an effective response to Schubert’s message that gay equality harms kids. Enter Freedom To Marry. The umbrella group was founded in 2003 by the civil rights lawyer Evan Wolfson, who has consistently preached about winning hearts and minds in between elections rather than in the frenzied lead-up to them. While gay groups had spent millions of dollars on public opinion research before and after the Prop 8 loss in California, no one had ever stopped to pull it all together.

Within weeks of the Maine loss, Freedom To Marry helped assemble a coalition of state-based gay groups, polling experts and academic researchers to centralize and share information so that each campaign didn’t have to start from scratch for each new battle.

What came out of this tightly coordinated effort was the key to winning. For decades, gay advocates had framed their arguments in terms of equal rights and government benefits, often using rhetoric that was confrontational (“We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”) and demanding (“We deserve equal rights now!”). Third Way, a centrist think tank working in the coalition with Freedom To Marry, began to unpack exactly how straight people reacted to such tactics. The group found that when straight people were asked what marriage meant to them, they spoke of love, commitment and responsibility. But when asked why they thought gay people wanted to marry, they cited rights and benefits. Tapping into anti-gay stereotypes, they suggested gay people wanted marriage for selfish reasons while they themselves wanted to express love and commitment.

The gay rights coalition’s response was the “Why Marriage Matters” campaign. Its message was “love, commitment, family,” with no mention of rights or benefits. On the surface, it looks like any garden-variety public education campaign, a little vague, a little sappy. But this message was the result of several years and millions of dollars of research. It signaled a sea change in the way gay advocates pled their case. This was a way to invite straight people to empathize with gay people, to reassure the majority that gay people wanted the same things that they did, and to shift focus from minority rights to points of commonality. The year Why Marriage Matters rolled out, 2011, was also the year that a slew of polls first showed majority national support for same-sex marriage.


The lesson is a simple one, fundamental even, but it is very often forgotten or ignored by social and cause marketers. It’s that you have to understand your audience, and frame your issue in terms they can understand and identify with. Consumer marketers live by this code, but in the world of activists and not-for-profits it simply isn’t intuitive.

What I see happening instead, over and over again, is preaching to the choir.

Compare the positive, soft, and common ground approach of Why Marriage Matters to this (use headphones, if your home or workplace frowns on swearing):

I understand the anger that FCKH8 is expressing. I just don’t think it helps their cause. But just as PETA shock ads actually turn off some animal rights activists, and the shaming approach used by MADD and some other anti-drunk-driving campaigners actually has the opposite of its intended effect, the confrontational approach to gay rights is not winning hearts and minds.

The positive and welcoming approach to social marketing may seem boring and to ad people like us, but it doesn’t have to be. Just look at the amazingly powerful work that has been done on the equal marriage issue by Get Up! Action for Australia and the UK’s Coalition for Equal Marriage. Reaching beyond your own audience can be a powerful and moving experience. And it can get you what you really want.


I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more