Christmas ad about young people in care falls short on LGBTQ+ representation

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By Dr Willem Stander and Dr Jason Schaub
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

The retailer John Lewis is renowned for winning the UK’s unofficial Christmas advert competition, creating tearjerker TV moments and tugging at heart strings for more than a decade.

This year’s Christmas advert takes a charitable angle, raising awareness of the plight of young people in the care sector. Created in partnership with Action for Children and Who Cares? Scotland, “the beginner” shows a middle-aged man’s determined efforts to learn skateboarding, showing through the advert that he is trying to prepare for the arrival of a nervous foster teenager, Ellie. The advert has been lauded by the Fostering Network for recognising the difference fostering can make in the lives of vulnerable young people and celebrating the importance of carers.

While its depiction of care is apt, demonstrating how empathy and connection goes a long way, the advert lacks diversity and intersectionality leaving the care experiences of those with particular vulnerabilities largely absent from its narrative.  

Banner spanning the width of the article, with the colours of the progress pride flag

Our research found that LGBTQ+ young people are more likely to be placed in care than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. In addition, LGBTQ+ young people experience more placements, longer periods in care, worse mental health and are more likely to be placed in residential rather than foster care. They often need to be placed in care because of family and caregiver rejection surrounding their LGBTQ+ identities.

The study forms part of the Lgbtq+ Young People in Social cAre (LYPSA) project, led by the University of Birmingham and funded by What Works for Children’s Social Care, and includes several studies designed to improve the social care of LGBTQ+ young people in England.

Our findings also show that three groups of LGBTQ+ young people have more challenges, namely racial and ethnic minority LGBTQ+ young people, bisexual and lesbian girls and young women, and transgender and nonbinary young people. It is important to note that the specific needs of LGBTQ+ young people are not being addressed by our social care systems. A recent study found that few local authorities in England recorded LGBTQ+ identities of young people they worked with. Our study found that children and family professionals (social workers and foster carers) often report they lack the knowledge to support this vulnerable group. Consequently, many LGBTQ+ young people, and transgender and nonbinary young people in particular, do not live in supportive homes or experience the connection with their carers as depicted in the advert.

Findings from a further study in this project, where we interviewed LGBTQ+ young people with experiences of residential care, found that LGBTQ+ young people relished the connection with an affirming professional. They described these relationships as important to their experience, but noted that they were not the norm, but were more likely to be the exception.

The advertising industry has the power to create positive change through authentic and informed representation, putting diversity and inclusivity at the heart of its messaging. The John Lewis advert showcases an important family setting and calls attention to the important issue of fostering, as well as the difference carers can make in the lives of young people in care. Hopefully, “The Beginner” is part of a larger conversation about how to ensure care systems are inclusive and attentive all young people, including LGBTQ+ young people.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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